Pakistan and Saudi Arabia appear to be seeking a reset of ties after several years of bilateral tensions
Prime Minister Imran Khan is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia for three days from Oct. 23 (Saturday) at the invitation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reportedly to attend the Middle East Green Initiative summit scheduled in Riyadh on Oct. 25.
The prime minister’s visit also includes meetings with the Saudi leadership, with an intent to improve the two nations’ bilateral ties. This is P.M. Khan’s second visit to Saudi Arabia this year.
It is undeniable that the once “brotherly” ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been dented in recent years, partly due to Islamabad’s growing ties with Turkey. The Pak-Turk relationship has tended to disturb the Arab part of the Islamic world due to the well-known split between Ankara and the Arab states led by Riyadh, which frequently benefits Turkey because of intra-Arab rivalry in the Gulf. In 2017, Pakistan too became somewhat alienated when an “Arab Islamic American summit” in Riyadh appeared to sideline Pakistan. Then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif reportedly rehearsed a speech during his flight to Riyadh, but was not even invited to address the summit.
As if in reaction, Pakistan got together with Turkey and Malaysia in December 2019 to hold a “parallel” Islamic Summit in Kuala Lumpur that would “tackle issues that have agitated Muslims worldwide.” Saudi Arabia, expectedly, blackballed the summit, prompting Pakistan to also pull out of it at the last minute. Despite this, Islamabad could not escape some negative remarks from the Kingdom. It became clear that the Arab states patronized by Saudi Arabia—despite some Gulf divisions—did not favor what Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan had planned. The Pakistani press reported: “Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who along with [Malaysia’s] Mahathir and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had been a prime mover behind the summit, made a belated decision to skip the meeting.”
Turkey offends Iran too
Turkey has often gone against Arab interests in the Gulf region. It is in Iraq and Syria opposing Iranian interests there; it has a military contingent in Qatar “for protection” in case Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. take action against Doha for protecting the radical Muslim Brotherhood leadership on its soil. In the latest act of intra-Islamic rivalry, Turkey has also offended Iran by siding with Azerbaijan against Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Middle Eastern new site Al-Monitor, on Oct. 18, reported: “Turkey extended strong military support to Azerbaijan, its close ally and ethnic cousin, to help it prevail over Armenia in the six-week war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, pursuing a strategic vision that has irked Iran. The conflict ended in November, with Azerbaijan regaining control of several regions under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s. The new reality on the ground has fueled rows over regional transport links, underlain by broader geopolitical interests and growing Iranian concerns over Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey and Israel.”
Pak-Turkish-Azeri military exercise
In September 2019, Turkey and Azerbaijan held two military exercises in Azeri territories reclaimed from Armenia, with Pakistan joining them in a third one. Needless to say, Tehran decried the drills as an affront to “an agreement between Caspian littoral states to not allow foreign military presence in the region” and launched rather menacing war-games near the border with Azerbaijan. Referring to Azerbaijan’s close military cooperation with Israel, Iran’s foreign minister warned that Tehran would neither tolerate Israeli presence near its borders nor allow geopolitical changes in the region, implying that Israeli agents were active in the region.
He also denounced “the transfer of some terrorist groups” to the region—a reference to fighters that Turkey transferred from Syria to back Azeri forces during the war. The day the war-games kicked off, Armenia’s defense minister met the Iranian ambassador in Yerevan to discuss security cooperation, and Tehran hosted the Armenian foreign minister several days later.
Qureshi lashes out
In October 2020, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had lashed out at the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not summoning a meeting of foreign ministers on the Kashmir issue. It did not go down well with then-OIC chair Saudi Arabia. What further angered the Saudis was Qureshi’s statement that Pakistan would explore the possibility of convening a meeting of the foreign ministers of the OIC’s member states “outside OIC.”
Qureshi’s remarks came against Riyadh demanding early repayment of $3 billion in loans meant to shore up Islamabad’s foreign exchange reserves—a culmination of the spat between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia over the Kuala Lumpur summit. Thankfully, bilateral tensions have since cooled somewhat. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia now appear to be in the midst of a reset of relations, with Riyadh reportedly opting against withdrawing the final tranche of its $3 billion loan after Islamabad had already repaid $2 billion. There is also renewed talk of an Aramco oil refinery and petrochemicals complex in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar, as well as claims by Adviser to the P.M. on Finance Shaukat Tarin of a new deferred oil facility. Pakistan’s Foreign Office has also compensated by issuing a statement of support for the Saudi leadership after the release of a declassified U.S. intelligence report on the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It isn’t an exaggeration to note the massive importance in Pakistan of positive ties with Saudi Arabia, especially in terms of the remittances that the government relies on to shore up its foreign exchange reserves. As of December 2019, over 11 million Pakistanis have officially traveled abroad for employment; the largest number of these (4 million) are concentrated in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. hosting the majority. Remittances by Pakistani migrant workers reached $21.84 billion in 2019—a full 60-65 percent of these were from Arab States.
What of future relations? One source specializing on Pak-Saudi relations—the Middle East Institute—surmises: “Despite the improving trajectory of Saudi-Pakistan relations, the bilateral reset will be limited to modest economic and military cooperation. The strategic drift between Islamabad and the two Gulf Cooperation Council heavyweights, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, will continue as the Pakistan-Turkey partnership grows and both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bolster economic and security ties with Pakistan’s archrival India.”
Saudi projects hang fire
Pakistan’s engagement with Saudi Arabia since 2018 has shown the consequences of a poor script (as most clearly evidenced from P.M. Khan’s clumsy withdrawal at the kingdom’s behest from the conference in Malaysia). Writing for the Middle East Institute, Arif Rafiq reported that part of the reason that energy projects agreed with Riyadh in 2018 had not yet come to fruition was because Pakistan was ill-prepared to absorb the funding and implement them. That’s the kind of lag that a well-crafted foreign policy would avoid.
Writing in daily Dawn on May 17, Huma Yusuf opined: “A clearer policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf more broadly, will also articulate the parameters of the much-touted information and cultural ties being pursued with Riyadh. Pakistan’s religio-national identity remains hotly contested. Efforts to Arabize society through compulsory Arabic-language instruction and Saudi-funded madrassas have also met with resistance. If the goal is simply to better equip future expat labor or facilitate trade, we should explicitly state that, rather than recast ourselves in the Gulf’s image.”
P.M. Khan’s decision to travel to Saudi Arabia for the second time this year suggests he is ready to let bygones be bygones and once again restore the close ties that the two countries have historically enjoyed. Whether Riyadh is also willing to move on remains to be seen.