Saudi-Pak Differences: Just How Deep Is The Gulf?
In a time where relations between countries are in flux and major realignments are the new normal, Pakistan made a foreign policy move that still surprises the observer. Some form of close relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was taken as a given – until this past week. What began as Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi going out on a limb has since become an official posture of increased aloofness towards the Saudi kingdom. Riyadh, for its part, has reacted with the cold scorn of an entity that sees itself as the senior power dealing with an ungrateful client: demanding that more of the $ 3 billion owed to it by Pakistan be repaid and casting doubt on the $ 3.2bn oil credit facility that it had extended to Pakistan in 2018.
There has been speculation on whether Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s sharp public criticism of Saudi policy on Kashmir was more a reflection of his own political ambitions than an official view. But regardless of the foreign minister’s personal stakes in this move, it should be obvious that Saudi-Pak ties are at an all-time low – and this is the result of profound differences between the two countries.
One indication of the great differences that have developed is the upcoming journey by Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Riyadh in an effort to patch up bilateral ties. The Army Chief’s involvement would indicate that the country’s powerful military recognizes the rift that has developed between the two countries and now hopes to minimize the damage from it. After all, the financial stakes for cash-strapped Pakistan are particularly high. Not only has Saudi lending been crucial for the country, but Pakistan has upwards of 2.5 million expatriate workers in the kingdom. These expatriates in Saudi Arabia have long been Pakistan’s single largest source of remittances.
There is another indication this week of the how deep the divide between Riyadh and Islamabad might have become. Although it may, at first sight, appear unrelated, we refer here to the United Arab Emirates’ historic pact with the State of Israel, which formalizes security and commercial ties that already existed for many years and represents a withdrawal from any pretence of solidarity with occupied Palestine.
Such a move by the UAE fits in with the general posture of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – especially Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the United States and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s increasing warmth towards Israel. As Pakistan steps up its effort to build diplomatic and political unity among Muslim-majority powers on the Kashmir issue, it is unlikely to feel reassured by the GCC apathy towards such causes. Indeed, Riyadh’s refusal to see India-vs-Pakistan as a zero sum game is clearly infuriating for Islamabad.
It is clear that the GCC countries have chosen an approach of brutal realpolitik which has no use for strategic-ideological considerations such as Arab or Muslim unity.
Unable to get the support it seeks on the Kashmir issue from Saudi Arabia, it is likely that Pakistan will move towards the Turkey-led bloc which appears more willing to make the right noises. Pakistan’s drift towards Turkey and Malaysia had irked the Saudi kingdom and tensions between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and PM Imran Khan on this issue had been widely discussed in Pakistan over the past few months. The Pakistani PM’s desire to create an alternative to the Jeddah-headquartered Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) may well have contributed greatly to ruffling Saudi feathers. There was also much talk of how the Saudi Crown Prince took a dim view of PM Imran Khan’s eager voluntary efforts to “mediate” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The point here is not to suggest that Riyadh and Islamabad can no longer mend bilateral ties and come back to some sort of workable close relationship. It is only to emphasize that the current Saudi-Pak rift – arguably a historic low-point for the two countries – is now as sharply ideological as it is profoundly strategic.
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.