One thought Prime Minister Imran Khan’s dash to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 14 was a routine visit to Pakistan’s patron state prior to traveling to Geneva to attend a conference by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on Dec. 17. But Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan revealed on Dec. 16 that there was a fire to be doused in Riyadh: the King had taken offense at Khan’s decision to attend a conference in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 18-19, “participated by over 400 Muslim leaders, intellectuals, scholars and thinkers from 52 countries,” with Turkey calling the shots.
Saudi Arabia, which hosts 2.7 million of Pakistan’s poor-quality manpower, feels Turkey is polarizing the Islamic world and is dragging Pakistan into a new anti-Saudi hostile bloc. What caused everyone to be taken aback was Awan’s frank admission that the trip to Kula Lumpur might be postponed: “P.M. Khan would hold consultations with all stakeholders before taking a decision in this matter,” she told journalists, adding the final decision would be “in accordance with national interest.” The fact that the Saudis can’t ignore—and Imran Khan can’t resist—is that he would appear in Kuala Lumpur as the most charismatic leader of the Islamic world, thus making the conference a success.
Given Imran Khan’s temperament, it would be unusually “realistic” if he were to actually cancel his planned appearance at Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad’s conference. This realism, if applied, would be based on the uncomfortable fact that Riyadh had provided $6 billion to help the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government out of its economic crisis in 2018. The gratitude that Pakistan owed in return went on to obscure the embarrassing fact that its Gulf friends had failed to condemn India over its abrogation of Article 370 to grab its “India-administered” Kashmir and its imposition of curfew there under martial law.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have fallen out gradually over their “tacit disagreements” after the Arab Spring and its aftermath; and Turkey’s inclination to “cooperate” with Iran in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. For Ankara, the anti-Saudi moves—like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and not glossing over the Saudi-planned murder of Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil—were embedded in the historic Turkish-Arab disagreement over the Ottoman Empire’s “caliphate.” The Turkish-Iranian cooperation in the region has caused the Saudi royalty to assert itself against any joining of Pakistan with its intra-Islamic “enemies” at the Kuala Lumpur Summit.
U.S. President Trump’s reinforcement of sanctions on Iran after pulling out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal caused Turkish President Erdogan to immediately vow that “Ankara would continue to purchase oil and natural gas from Iran despite U.S. sanctions.” Although inclined to be anti-Shia, Erdogan clearly helped with the Middle Eastern polarization, siding with Iran against Saudi Arabia. This is the kind of anti-American defiance that also appeals to Pakistan’s Imran Khan but he doesn’t have the diplomatic elbowroom that Turkey has in the region because of its economy, which is almost a quarter bigger in size than Saudi Arabia’s.
Under King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—the latter appointed Crown Prince in 2017—the Saudi kingdom is liberalizing internally and thinking realistically about its single-item economy. This means it is leaning more on the Indian market for investment while patronizing a bankrupt Pakistan, which has not achieved the needed transfer of technology even after 72 years of its existence.
On the other hand, Turkey and Malaysia are “Islamizing” in opposition to “Western dominance” and likely creating an alternative to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) headquartered in Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Khan’s own Riasat-e-Madina (State of Madina) concept carries in it the seed of “deviation” from the past practice of bending the knee to the Saudi Kingdom.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Dec. 14 even claimed the Kuala Lumpur Summit would support the Saudi-led OIC, rather than supplant it, but Awan’s statement and Khan’s pending cancellation, suggest this view was not shared by the House of Saud.
Pakistan is also embarrassingly handicapped in formulating a policy of its choice in the prevailing situation. It is under obligation to the Arabs of the Gulf and the United States (both are home to Pakistanis sending in crucial remittances) but yearns for “independence” under its new leadership. It has favored Turkey when the latter wanted its schools closed in Pakistan and their teachers repatriated to Turkey to receive Erdogan’s “punishment”; and it approached Iran to ward off its own regional “encirclement” by India’s infrastructural investments in a “sanction-ridden” Iran.
Can Pakistan ride with this kind of independent but not too realistic policy? The way its new leadership wishes to assert its “freedom of policy” might expose it to economic harm. Charisma and a sense of honor usually lead to inflexibility; but sadly without flexibility no statesmanship is possible.