Pakistan has been called Saudi Arabia's closest Muslim ally and the bilateral relations between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been historically close and positively friendly, occasionally described as constituting a special relationship. Pakistan affirms its relationship with Saudi Arabia as their most "important and bilateral partnership" in the current foreign policy of Pakistan, working and seeking to develop closer bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia, the largest country on the Arabian peninsula and host to the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina and the destination of Muslim pilgrims from across the world.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are bonded by a special relationship. The Saudis have used their wealth to invest in advanced weaponry, yet for decades Pakistan’s manpower and military expertise has played a pivotal role in the kingdom’s security landscape. As underscored by General Sharif’s meeting with the Saudi king in Riyadh recently, which took place upon the conclusion of joint military drills, Riyadh and Islamabad continue to go to great lengths to remain engaged in each other’s security.
One of most important aspect of Saudi Arabia-Pakistan relations is their shared responsibility of defending Islam and global Muslims while Islamabad repeats its commitment to ensuring the safety and protection of Mecca and Medina, as well as Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. This aspect is often stressed by both whenever the leaders of both countries visit each other’s nation and when Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, visited recently Saudi Arabia meeting with King Salman, among others, the point was stressed again. The Saudi officials also called for peace and stability in Pakistan. General Sharif’s trip was important as it ended a cool period in bilateral relations dating back to April, when the Pakistani parliament unanimously voted against joining Operation Decisive Storm (later named Operation Restoring Hope) led by Saudi Arabia and marked the beginning of a reset in Saudi-Pakistani ties and an end to the friction caused by their disagreement over Yemen earlier this year.
A high priority for Pakistan, however, is to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and neighboring Iran. Islamabad saw siding with Riyadh in Yemen—a flashpoint in the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry—as risky, given its potential to offset this delicate balance and poison the atmosphere for any possible improvement in relations with Iran, although many Pakistani Shiites staunchly opposed the Saudi campaign against Yemen’s Zaydi Houthi rebel movement..Saudi kingdom is also determined to maintain their “special relationship” by preventing the conflict from creating too much space between itself and Islamabad. Riyadh thinks that Islamabad could play a future role as peace broker in Yemen
There is, however, a strong feeling among parts of Pakistani intelligential that their ideological independence is being swayed by Saudi strategic interests, which have made us a pawn in the Iran-Saudi conflict, in turn exerting an unbearable toll of sectarian conflict currently plaguing the length and breadth of our nation. They want Pakistan to stay neutral to be able to stand strong. Pakistan’s new-found neutrality is refreshing, given its longstanding embroilment in a proxy contestation between Iran and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia
Mutual care and assistance
Saudi Arabia remains a major destination for immigration amongst Pakistanis, the number of whom living in Saudi Arabia stands between 900,000 and 1 million Saudi Arabia is the largest source of petroleum for Pakistan. It also supplies extensive financial aid to Pakistan and remittance from Pakistani migrants in Saudi Arabia is also a major source of foreign currency for Pakistan. In recent years, both countries have exchanged high-level delegations and developed plans to expand bilateral cooperation in trade, education, real estate, tourism, information technology, communications and agriculture. Saudi Arabia is aiding the development of trade relations with Pakistan through the Gulf Cooperation Council, with which Pakistan is negotiating a free trade agreement; the volume of trade between Pakistan and GCC member states in 2006 stood at USD 11 billion.
Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of Pakistan and a major financial contributor to the country’s nuclear armory. Even soon after the country’s nuclear tests in year 1998, Saudi Arabia had come forward for financial assistance while the world powers had imposed sanctions on Pakistan. It has provided Pakistan oil concessions and direct funds to shore up its foreign exchange reserves in times of need.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have sought to develop extensive commercial, cultural, religious, political, and strategic relations since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. Saudi - Pakistani relations have been warm throughout modern history as they have been hailed being one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries in the world. For decades, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have maintained a unique alliance, rooted in Al Saud’s self-anointed religious legitimacy, the strength and expertise of Pakistan’s military, the two states’ common geopolitical interests and the 1.5 million Pakistani laborers in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia sees Pakistan, which shares a 565-mile border with Iran and is the only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, as a vital ally capable of serving as an effective counterweight to growing Iranian influence. Since the 1960s, Pakistani soldiers have been permanently stationed in the kingdom and Islamabad has provided Saudi Arabia with much military aid, expertise and cooperation on regional affairs. During the 1980s, Pakistan deployed its troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from the mutually perceived Iranian threat, while Riyadh collaborated with Islamabad and Washington to train and arm the Mujahideen fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989).
Riyadh came to the side of Pakistan in the late 1990s and provided the country with $2 billion worth of free crude oil after the US imposed nuclear sanctions on Islamabad. In fact, Riyadh tacitly bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. It is presumed that if Saudi Arabia were to decide to pursue a nuclear weapons program, Pakistan would help Riyadh achieve that status.
During the Gulf War of 1991, 11,000 Pakistani troops were in Saudi Arabia “protecting” holy sites. When Bahrain’s uprising erupted in 2011, Saudi kingdom recruited at least 2,500 former Pakistani servicemen to assist Gulf Arab security forces in suppressing Shi’ite demonstrators demanding equality in the Sunni-ruled island kingdom.
Saudi Arabia provided refuge to the current prime minister of the country, while he was in exile during the military rule of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. However, some developments indicate that the relationship between the countries is perhaps undergoing a period of transition and potential recalibration.
Minor rift in perceptions
However, relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been at their lowest after Pakistani parliament refused to accept Riyadh’s request for Pakistani troops to be deployed in the holy land as part of a larger alliance against the Shia Houthis of Yemen.
Relations between the two countries had turned “somewhat cool” following the Pakistani Parliament’s decision in April to stay neutral in the military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists in Yemen. The Saudis never adopted the US type bully strategy toward Pakistan like: ‘you’re either with us or against us’ approach to the war in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Indian premier Modi launched a diplomatic offensive to woo the Gulf States, and media hype was created to claim a strategic shift in India’s relations with Gulf States. Saudi royals decline defence pact proposed by Indian premier PM Narendra Modi during Gulf States visit. Saudi Arabia has reassured Pakistan that it continues to be the country’s ‘brother-in-arms’ by denying a defence pact offered by Indian PM Modi recently. Media reports also claimed that Modi during his recent visit to the UAE had offered all Gulf States full defence cooperation, including the Yemen offensive.
Modi, who is the first Indian PM in 34 years to visit UAE, was eyeing strategic alliance with the Gulf States, which have traditionally been Pakistan’s ally. Diplomatic sources said that the Saudi royal family had chosen to stand by Pakistan in the evolving geo-strategic situation. The Saudis believe that despite a rare chill in relations with Pakistan, the long-term interests of the monarchy are with Pakistan. Pakistan has given a clear cut assurance to the Royal family that though it would not send its troops for Yemen war, it would send its forces in case of an internal conflict. Neither Indian not US forces would be allowed in Saudi Arabia in case of an internal conflict.
Further complicating the landscape is Saudi Arabia’s deepening relationship with India. Although official diplomatic relations between the two states date back to 1955, Riyadh and Delhi’s relationship received a major upgrade in 2006 when King Abdullah visited India and signed the Delhi Declaration, aimed at enhancing bilateral cooperation in security sectors. In 2010, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and King Abdullah signed the Riyadh Declaration, establishing the basis for enhanced counterterrorism efforts between the two governments and the eventual signing of the extradition treaty. In 2012, following the visit of India’s Defense Minister to the kingdom, Delhi reportedly helped Riyadh establish a jungle warfare college, aimed at training Saudi forces to combat al-Qaeda fighters near Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen.
The extent to which Indian-Saudi cooperation on security improved was illustrated in July 2012, when Saudi authorities arrested Zabiuddin Ansari, the Indian terrorist responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He was living in the kingdom with a Pakistani passport while seeking new recruits for a “massive attack” in India. Although Ansari’s possession of a Pakistani passport would have normally led the Saudis to extradite him to Pakistan, officials in Riyadh extradited Ansari to India, which constituted a watershed moment in Indian-Saudi cooperation.
Although unlikely that India could ever replace Pakistan’s role in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy strategy, growing Indian-Saudi economic ties could impact Riyadh’s perception of Pakistan’s strategic value as a long-term partner. In certain ways, trade with India appears much more promising to Saudi Arabia than with Pakistan. Even though Pakistan is largely dependent on the kingdom economically, bilateral trade is uneven. It mostly consists of Saudi exports to Pakistan, which is running a growing trade deficit with Saudi Arabia. Indian-Saudi trade is much larger, as well as much more balanced and diverse than the kingdom’s trade with Pakistan.
India is richer and stronger than Pakistan or Bangladesh or any other South Asian/SAARC nation in all respects. Indian-Saudi trade surpasses Pakistan’s trade with Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members combined. However, the future of Indian-Iranian trade, now that international powers and Iran have signed the nuclear agreement, will undoubtedly influence the extent to which India turns to Saudi Arabia as an economic partner in the years ahead.
Of course, looming in the background is Riyadh’s warming relationship with Delhi, a negative geopolitical development from Islamabad’s perspective that could influence the future of Saudi-Pakistani relations.
Reset of historic trust
Pakistan’s reasons for refusing to join Operation Decisive Storm are indicative of new geopolitical realities and new priorities for Pakistan’s leadership which have perhaps compromised the two nations’ previously held high level of trust. Moving forward, it is likely that the Gulf Arab monarchies—not only Saudi Arabia, but also the UAE—will raise further questions about Islamabad’s commitment to GCC security in light of the Yemen disagreement.
In fact, the ties between Pakistan and the UAE suffered from the fallout over Yemen last April and General Sharif’s recent visit to Riyadh was in part aimed at reaching out to the Emirati leaders via Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s powerhouse.
The alliance’s “reset” demonstrated that the Yemeni crisis is not the only issue which defines Saudi-Pakistani relations, and different strategies for reacting to the conflict did not end the “special relationship.”
Following intense back-channel diplomacy on the part of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif which eventually culminated in the joint military drill and the army chief’s visit, the relationship is now on a firm footing, say experts. The prime minister, who enjoys a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, himself visited Riyadh in July and conducted crucial talks with King Salman to take the relationship back to its historic 1998 levels. The Kingdom’s security and military relations with Pakistan are well established.
Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia received a big boost with the recent two-day visit by Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to meet Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman and other leaders. Last month, while speaking at the conclusion of the Saudi-Pakistani joint military training drill, dubbed Al-Shihab, the army chief reiterated that any threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.
Improved ties with Saudi Arabia will have a positive impact on Pakistan’s relationship with the Saudi led Arab world.
Saudi, Pakistan and China
As Islamabad and Riyadh explore deeper relations with other players in the region, the long-term trajectory of Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Pakistan is difficult to predict.
Unquestionably, Islamabad serves as one of Beijing’s key strategic allies in its battle against India for economic and political supremacy in greater Asia. Like the USA, Pakistan recently has signaled its interest in making a pivot to Asia and away from the Middle East. China, which has wielded significant political and economic influence in Pakistan for many years, is financing and constructing an economic corridor linking Pakistan’s port of Gwadar to China’s Xinjiang province. The same month in which Pakistan refused to deploy troops to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Islamabad promised Beijing 10,000 troops (5,000 of which came from the elite “Special Services Group”) to protect Chinese laborers working on the construction of this corridor in Pakistan. It says a lot about Sino-Pakistani relations that the Chinese would agree to build the economic corridor under such security conditions.
Included in the $46 billion deal was the construction of a gas pipeline (to be completed as soon as 2017) linking the port of Gwadar to Iran’s South Pars field. The pipeline is expected to cost $3 billion, of which $2 billion will finance the construction of a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal at the port of Gwadar. China, determined to create a modern-day Silk Road linking its eastern cities to the Persian Gulf, agreed to provide 85 percent of the funding for this pipeline with a loan; Pakistan has agreed to finance the rest. Clearly, energy-starved Pakistan is eager to explore deeper relations with energy-rich Iran, now that global powers and Tehran have signed the nuclear agreement and international sanctions are beginning to loosen. Yet in viewing Iran as a predatory state determined to wreak havoc across the Middle East, the Saudi rulers are most unsettled by Islamabad’s deepening relationship with Tehran and question Pakistan’s long-term reliability as a strategic ally. The Saudis have actively sought to counter Iranian influence in Pakistan. For example, earlier this year, WikiLeaks released documents exposing high-ranking Saudi diplomats’ efforts to promote Saudi influence in Pakistan’s universities and prevent Iranian scholars from making inroads at such academic institutions in Pakistan.
Though the shifts in the Middle East and South Asia’s geopolitical order raise questions about the alliance’s long-term prospects, Saudi Pakistan ties are meant to be strong.
As Middle Eastern conflicts raise tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan will find it increasingly challenging to navigate through the turmoil while maintaining a meaningful balance in its relationships with Riyadh and Tehran.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will remain close allies, but despite the “reset” earlier last month, the evolving Saudi-Pakistani alliance may face unforeseen complications in the future.
Faith and mutual trust can save the special relationship. Riyadh will want to avoid alienating Islamabad, as the Saudis face a host of growing domestic and regional security challenges in which Pakistan’s manpower and diplomatic influence could well suit Saudi interests.
United, they will stand as loyal allies - Pakistan, Saudi Arab led Arab world and Iran - notwithstanding the tricks of enemies of Islam and Muslims that employ Islamophobia techniques to divide Muslim nations, both Arab and non-Arab. They should avoid fighting each other in order to appease the enemies of Islam pretending to be the long term “friends” of Islam and Muslims. The enemies are capable of enacting more of Sept-11 hoaxes.