There was a time, not long ago; when an unwritten consensus/agreement existed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It was strong defense ties and unconditional diplomatic support to each other. Pakistan would support Saudi policy in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia would stand by Pakistan in all its decisions in South Asia. Just no question asked. Whether it was military government in Pakistan or civilian led democracy, it did not matter much for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has unambiguously supported Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir dispute and the kingdom has always been a major source of financial support to Pakistan. Till recently 2.5 million Pakistani citizens worked in the Kingdom and sent home around $7 billion in remittances every year, (currently workforce and remittances on continuous decline), which helped the country overcome financially hurdles.
Traditionally, people of Pakistan incredibly value country’s relations with China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. Pakistani academia and diplomatic corps count guaranteed and unwavering support to Pakistan from aforesaid countries through thick and thin. In the recent past, however, the Pakistan relations with Saudi Arabia have gone cold.
There have been a few conspicuous incidents which exhibit low tide in Pak-Saudi relations. First, Saudi Arabia, in Feb 2018 withdrew its support to Pakistan during second round of negotiation in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris. It cascaded a major diplomatic blow and consequently, Pakistan was included in the list of those countries that finically support terrorism. It was unfortunate and far from truth. The country is vigorously fighting foreign sponsored terrorists and making huge sacrifices in term of human and material losses. Just a month back terrorists hit election campaign in Mustang, Baluchistan in which 150 innocent people died and over 300 injured.
Pakistan’s financial transactions are also far more transparent than many other important countries in the world but murky politics prevailed over a sheer technical issue in an international institution.
Second, Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries is on sharp decline. There is a conspicuous increase in exit of overseas Pakistani working in Saudi Arabia. We appreciates the recent economic difficulties of Saudi Arabia, however, Pakistan in particularly has been hit hard by Saudi policies. It might be a coincidence that the arch rival of Pakistan; India is finding more influence, trade and labor in the Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries.
Third, to contain China and prevent resurgence of Russia, the United States has chosen a new security paradigm in the region in which India is the key strategic partner to the US. The US has also pulled down Pakistan at many occasions by attending to Indian narratives. Pakistan, too, desperately searched other alternatives to the dislike of the US. Consequently, the gulf between Pak and US increased but contrary to the precedence, the Saudis did not play their part in bridging the gap.
It is true that Pakistan’s parliament’s decision not to join the Saudi Coalition in Yemen was hurtful for Saudi Arabia but it was based on domestic compulsions. Pakistan had been bleeding due to religious extremism and it did not step on new fault line, the sectarian divide. Pakistan not only share a border with Iran but its 15 percent population is Shiite. There were fears that Iran will not hesitate to provoke Pakistan’s Shiite population against the state. Iranian Ambassador in Islamabad in 1987 had openly boasted that Iran could bring a million Shiites into the streets of Pakistan in a matter of hours.
There has been a complete consensus in Pakistan that holy places of Makkah and Madina in Saudi Arabia would be protected by Pakistan like its own soil. Pakistan army particularly developed special defense ties with Saudi Arabia. It is believed that 2x mechanized infantry divisions of Pakistan Strike Corps have the secondary role to protect holy places of Saudi Arabia. The command echelon of these forces have frequently visited Saudi Arabia, carried out their reconnaissance and updating their operational plans.
There was yet another task for Pakistan armed forces, very important but less talked about. It was to provide security duties to the Saudi King, Crown Prince and other members of the Royal family. For this purpose, a size elite force comprising personnel of Special Services Group (SSG) have been traditionally earmarked. There was a uniqueness to Pak army. It neither desired nor involved herself in internal politics of Saudi Arabia. Pakistani troops had clear instructions from Pakistan high command to protect and support ruling family and block all attempt of coup/rebellion at all cost. It is claimed by many that Saudi Royal family felt far more comfortable whenever Pakistani forces were employed on their security duties.
USA has deployed sizeable US troops, weapon and equipment in the Saudi Arabia. CIA also provides substantial input and analysis to the ruling elite. US Intelligence, at numerous occasions, exaggerated Iranian threat to the kingdom and created undue hype possibly under defense lobbyists to sell defense equipment. Veterans in Pakistan narrate numerous incidents quoting former Saudi kings appreciation for quality input of Pakistan premier intelligence agency, (ISI).
The US access to sensitive information about King, Crown Prince and other key ruling family could be tricky in current political development in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is the best candidate with proven ability of its security forces and intelligence agency. Strong defense cooperation between two countries could serve as a force multiplier in Pak Saudi relations.
Young Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Suleiman, (MBS) is massively changing the Saudi Arabia and bringing reforms in the Saudi statecraft. Therefore, it is not correct to still view Saudi Arabia through old sectarian lens. Fortunately, it is becoming increasingly easy for Pakistan to balance Iranian factor in Pak Saudi relations.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia can greatly benefit from mutual cooperation. They quickly need to revive their traditional relations.
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