The root causes of tension in the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations
The ups and downs of the relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over recent months, are indicating a serious trouble between the two strategic allies. At first glance, it seems that the starting point of the recent tensions was the Pakistan foreign minister's outspoken criticism of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not supporting the people of Kashmir as well as Riyadh pressures on Islamabad. But, if we look at the relations between the two countries over the last 5 years, it becomes clear that this tension dates back to March 2015 and the Saudi invasion of Yemen. At least three important variables affected the Riyadh-Islamabad ties at this period. But despite the new stalemate is remarkable, it is still too soon to talk about separation between the two old friends.
By: Mohammad Seyyedi
The ups and downs of the relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over recent months, are indicating a serious trouble between the two strategic allies. At first glance, it seems that the starting point of the recent tensions was the Pakistan foreign minister's outspoken criticism of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for not supporting the Kashmiris as well as Riyadh pressures on Islamabad. But, if we look at the relations between the two countries over the past 5 years, it becomes clear that the tension dates back to March 2015 and the Saudi invasion of Yemen. Following the explicit opposition of the Pakistan government and National Assembly to the country’s involvement in Saudi Arabia's war against Yemen, the Islamabad-Riyadh relation has experienced its coldest period in the history.
Some of the most important variables that have strained the relations between Pakistan and some of the Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are as follows:
1- The issue of Kashmir and lack of support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for it;
2- Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with India; and
3- The pressures of the UAE and Saudi Arabia on Pakistan over recognizing the Zionist regime.
The most important trouble in the two countries’ bilateral relations is their disagreement over Kashmir. Imran Khan's critical remarks about Kashmir during the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Islamabad last year angered the Saudi officials. Following this trip, we witnessed the arrest of hundreds of Pakistani workers in various Saudi cities, which prompted Imran Khan to announce that he would attend the next Kuala Lumpur Summit (KL Summit). This was perhaps the first time that the Pakistani PM stood firm against Saudi Arabia’s interference in his country's internal affairs and gave a clear response to the Saudi officials. Given that Kashmir is one of the main red lines of the government and people of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s silence in this regard is bothering for Islamabad. In fact, any country that supports Pakistan's strategy in Kashmir, will receive more attention in the country’s foreign policy. For example, we can refer to the stance of senior Turkish and Malaysian officials in defending the rights of the Kashmiri people, which could lead to closer ties between these countries and Islamabad.
The revoke of Article 370 of India’s constitution - which was about granting special autonomy to the disputed region of Kashmir - by the Indian government in August 2019 forced Pakistan to repeatedly express its frustration about the OIC's stance on this issue. In an interview, the Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi severely attacked the OIC over its "indifference" as well as its frequent postponement of the summit on Kashmir. He also reiterated that his country is trying to find another way to resolve the Kashmir conflict. The move made Saudi Arabia to take back $1 billion of a $3 billion economic package it had deposited in Pakistan’s Central Bank two years ago and cancel its long-term oil sale loans to the country.
Another trouble in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan bilateral relations dates back to late 2019 and Riyadh pressures on Islamabad to not attend the KL Summit, which was scheduled to be held in December 2019. Saudi Arabia's argument was that the summit is not a good place to discuss the issues of the Muslim world. But, it seems that Riyadh was more concerned about its isolation during the summit and formation of an alliance between Iran, Turkey and Qatar. Riyadh thought the summit was an attempt to create an Islamic bloc against Saudi Arabia. However, less than two months after Pakistan refused to attend the KL Summit, the Turkish president traveled to Pakistan to talk about the economic and military cooperation between the two countries. During a speech at the Pakistan National Assembly, he pledged to support Pakistan in the face of "political pressures."
Following the inauguration of Imran Khan in August 2018, the country tried to thaw the ice of the relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. At this time, there were speculations about the relations between Islamabad and some countries that had a special place in Pakistan's foreign policy at different times. Meanwhile, the issue of cooperation with Riyadh was noticed more than any other issue. In this regard, we saw that the prime minister of Pakistan traveled to Saudi Arabia for several times in the first year and one of the main purposes of these trips was to receive financial assistance. Of course, the same procedure has been followed by the previous Pakistan governments and Saudi Arabia has been providing significant financial assistance to Pakistan based on its own strategic considerations. During Imran Khan's term, reportedly, more than $12 billion was approved, but it is said that only about $3 billion of the money was realized.
The Change in Saudi Arabia's view of India and Riyadh’s new strategy became clear during bin Salman's visit to the South Asian countries, including India, in February 2019. In an unprecedented move, the Saudi crown prince not only traveled to India immediately after leaving Pakistan, but also promised New Delhi to make large-scale investments in the country, just like the promise he made in Islamabad. Just after signing a $20 billion MOU to boost Pakistan economy, Bin Salman announced in New Delhi that Riyadh investments in India will exceed $100 billion over the next two years. Moreover, a few days after India's decision to repeal the Article 370, Saudi Aramco Oil Company signed a $15 billion deal with India. Some weeks later, in Mars 2019, The UAE also invited the Indian foreign minister to attend the OIC summit as an honorary guest and explicitly stated that it seeks closer ties with India even if it comes at the cost of ties with Pakistan. In response, the Pakistani foreign minister refused to attend the UAE summit, but the move did not prevent the UAE from inviting his Indian counterpart to the OIC summit. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia's trade volume with Pakistan is $6.3 billion, but it has more than $30 billion annual trade with India. This may justify Riyadh’s reluctance to displease New Delhi over the issue of Kashmir. In addition, the new Pakistani government is approaching Turkey and Malaysia.
It seems that in response to Islamabad's efforts for achieving more independence, which brought it closer to Riyadh's rivals in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia now sees Pakistan as a potential rival rather than a loyal ally.
The next trouble in Pakistan’s relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia - Which is in fact a continuation of the previous issues and completes the project of pressure on Pakistan - is the pressures on Pakistan to recognize the Zionist regime. As part of the project, we can refer to the visa restrictions for the Pakistani nationals in the UAE and their deportation for unknown reasons. However, some of the observers have mentioned the security considerations as the reason behind the visa restrictions. At the same time, they believe that Imran Khan's stubborn stance against the Zionist regime and the Arab countries’ desire to establish friendship with Tel Aviv has caused Islamabad to be targeted by those countries. Recently, in an interview with Samaa TV about Islamabad's view towards the Arab countries’ normalization of ties with the Zionist regime, Imran Khan reiterated Pakistan's strong position in support of the Palestinian people. Asked whether Islamabad is under pressure from non-Muslim countries or some of the Arab countries, he did not deny that and implicitly said that he cannot talks about the issue due to good relations with some of those countries.
Although the new stalemate in the Saudi-Pakistan relations is remarkable, it is still too soon to talk about separation between the two old friends. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had close ties for a long time. At several junctures, Saudi Arabia has provided special assistance to help Pakistan successfully get through the economic crises. For example, the $1.5 billion aid to the government of Nawaz Sharif or the loans Riyadh has given to the government of Imran Khan is part of the special assistance Saudi Arabia has provided for the country over these years.
But what is important is that Pakistan has also tried to increase its regional balancing policy towards the countries of the region in recent years by changing its foreign policy approach. Pakistan, for example, has always enjoyed good relations with Iran and tends to maintain a balance in relations with Tehran. To that purpose, Pakistan even offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh last year.
What is important for Pakistan is that it will not be easy for it to sever ties with Saudi Arabia, but the country’s regional interests, its competition with India, the future of Kashmir, the future of the Afghan crisis, and Islamabad’s relations with major powers such as the United States and China have forced Pakistan to reconsider its foreign policy in order to manage the crisis it is facing and plan its future behavior. The future will definitely show how Pakistan will redefine its role in the region.