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Pakistan’s Saudi marriage not over. But with China on its side, MBS mood swings won’t work

Pakistan sent Qureshi to China and Bajwa to Riyadh. Its design of the new Middle East policy is likely to be made in Rawalpindi not Islamabad.

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Islamabad is abuzz with chatter about the army and Inter-Services Intelligence chiefs’—General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed—listless visit to Saudi Arabia. A three-day stay in Riyadh did not result in an audience with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The duo had gone to placate Riyadh after Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s aggressive comments that had indicated an urge to part ways with Saudi Arabia. What is also at stake is a $6 billion Saudi credit line—approximately $3 billion provided to shore up Islamabad’s foreign currency reserves and another $3 billion in deferred oil payments.

As the top two men of the Pakistani security establishment flew back, Islamabad responded with its own rap on Riyadh’s knuckles—not only did Qureshi save his job, but he also fervently advertised his departure to China to attend an important conference. The signal here being that as Saudi Arabia diversifies relations, Pakistan, too, will re-evaluate Riyadh’s strategic worth. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s earlier knee-jerk reaction of December 2019 when Prime MinisterImran Khan declined to attend a summit in Malaysia due to Saudi pressure, Islamabad has now re-assessed its own position.

Also read: In Iran-China deal, Pakistan most interested in this clause — Delhi’s alienation from Tehran

The Pakistan-Saudi connect

The development of the past few weeks does not mean abandonment of Saudi Arabia and vice versa. Both Islamabad and Riyadh are heavily invested in each other. Pakistan’s armed forces play a critical role in securing the Saudi royalty and training of their armed forces. This is a role that was consciously sought and built upon since the mid-1960s. Traditionally, the Saudi royalty has preferred Pakistan’s military over the Egyptians or other Arab states. According to an assessment, there may be about 3,000-5,000 Pakistani troops presently deployed in the Kingdom. Besides, General Raheel Sharif, who heads a Saudi-lead counter-terrorism coalition, another retired military man, Maj. General Khawar Hanif works as adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Defense.

On its part, Saudi Arabia has consistently invested in Pakistan’s State and society. The bilateral State relations may not be at their best, but that does not minimise Saudi influence on Pakistan’s society. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, a Deobandi cleric and chief of Pakistan’s Ulema Council, is an example of the Saudi outreach in Pakistan. Both States have a lot of capacity to both benefit and harm each other. Neither would want the linkage to turn acutely sour.

Also read: Erdogan’s Turkey is on Pakistan-Indonesia track. Mixing military greed and radical Islam

What drives Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Pakistan’s reassessment of Saudi Arabia’s value or that of any other state revolves around its three broad foreign policy goals: (a) confronting India, (b) recognition as a significant regional player, and (c) seeking financial and other resources needed to run state infrastructure. Building a Muslim bloc that helps sustain these objectives has been part of its historical tactic. These three aims are both intertwined and at cross-purposes, resulting in interesting choices.

Saudi Arabia has been important for Pakistan as a source of socio-political legitimacy and as a financier. It is also one of the sources of oil procurement at affordable rates and terms. But that in itself is not sufficient to tie Pakistan to Saudi Arabia forever and at all costs.

One is reminded of Iran that was once Pakistan’s major financier. In fact, it was more significant than Riyadh in terms of security. Pakistan’s concept of strategic depth emanated from its relationship with Iran during the 1960s and 1970s. The Persian monarchy not only provided weapons to Pakistan during the 1965 war, but it also parked Pakistan International Airlines aircraft as protection against Indian bombing. Post-1965, Iran, as author Alex Vatanka states in his book Iran and Pakistan on Iran-Pakistan-US relations, became ‘an arms purchasing agent’ for Pakistan. The Shah of Iran considered Pakistan’s security as fundamental to its own and played a critical role in negotiating arms transfers from both the US and Israel.

Yet, in the late 1960s, a frustrated Shah of Iran sent his ambassador to Pakistan, General Hassan Pakravan, to then President General Ayub Khan with this message: “Why is it that Pakistan always turns to Iran when it has material needs but holds instead 100,000 man rallies for Nasser of Egypt?” General Khan, who was fascinated by Nasser, made an excuse that he was wowing Arab states to get additional support in the UN for Kashmir. However, the engagement with the Arabs versus Iran was more systemic and continued with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s.

Starting from the mid-1960s, Pakistan was re-arranging its relations based on its strategic calculus. While it continued to get financial aid from Iran and help in fighting insurgency in Balochistan, a major diversification took place in which the Arab world gained greater significance. Although Pakistan was distracted by Iran’s engagement with India and being constantly told by the Shah to improve relations with New Delhi, there were other reasons as well.

Islamabad viewed Indira Gandhi’s engagement with Tehran in 1974 with suspicion. Though Iran was committed to Pakistan’s security, the former recognizsed that India had a greater role in South Asia. This was unacceptable to Bhutto, who more than Ayub, was invested in the idea of Pakistan leading a Muslim power bloc independent of Iran. Reportedly, he bad-mouthed the Shah privately to American President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a weak ruler, who was less capable of protecting American interests in the Middle East and South Asia as compared to Pakistan. The whispers reached the Shah, generating bad blood between him and Bhutto. Therefore, the Shah of Iran refused to personally attend the Islamic Summit Conference organised by Bhutto in 1974 in Lahore. Tehran was miffed with the Pakistani leader eulogising Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal during the Summit and drawing closer to Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya.

Also read: Why Pakistan is keeping mum about India-China LAC conflict

The Indian entry

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were almost devoid of any Indian influence. Despite an earlier engagement with Saudi Arabia, India seemed to have abandoned the idea of pursuing it. In 1951, the Saudi king gave Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited the Kingdom, the title of ‘Rasool ul Islam’ (messenger of peace). But soon after, New Delhi not only withdrew from further engagement with the Kingdom, but as a British diplomat stated in his comments: “Nehru feared being encircled (politically) by Islamic states”. In 1958, New Delhi terminated the supply of Indian currency to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, citing inflation.

Pakistan not only filled the gap left by India, but also became a major source of security for the Saudi monarchy. For years, the bilateral relations depended on Rawalpindi than Islamabad. The bilateral cooperation during the 1980s against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan was a major glue. The exception was the Nawaz Sharif government. However, even Sharif could not take the risk of committing his government to Riyadh’s foreign policy goals vis-à-vis Yemen. The excessive military engagement also resulted in the inertia, due to which, Pakistan did not react to India’s re-engagement with Saudi Arabia that began in the late 1990s, grew during the 2000s and blossomed under the Narendra Modi government. Pakistan could not react as India with its growing economy became attractive for Saudi Arabia. There was always an over-dependence on military interaction. When the Saudi priorities changed further with a regime change in Riyadh, Pakistan fell back a little more.

Also read: China backs Pakistan on Kashmir, opposes unilateral action by India, says resolve dispute peacefully

Riyadh’s weakening economic clout  

It’s not just Riyadh that is shifting gears, Pakistan’s perception of Saudi Arabia also seems to be changing. There is lesser confidence in Riyadh’s ability to remain Pakistan’s cash-cow because of the former’s financial challenges emanating majorly from the oil crisis.

The policy of Arabisation means that Saudi Arabia is no longer a major destination for Pakistani labour. Politically, an MBS-led regime has numerous challenges to its security and lacks power to lead the Muslim world. The Crown Prince may look powerful but he has his vulnerabilities that could be exploited. The rivals that he has displaced from the domestic power equation and the Saudi deep state could aggravate matters for him.  The new Riyadh does not even appear to have the grit to take a decision on recognising Israel, without which, Pakistan cannot take a similar step. Not to mention Saudi Arabia’s growing political and financial investment in its relationship with India that is an issue. It is another matter that Islamabad has not even made a lukewarm effort to use the OIC mechanism to push the case for Kashmir or even marginally tried to wow a newly liberalising Saudi regime.

But at this juncture, inertia is not the cause of the changing bilateral relations. Pakistan seems to be driven more by the confidence of being part of a strategic grouping that it believes will dominate global politics in the coming years. The relationship with China, a possible inclusion of Iran and growth of the Belt and Road project do offer new challenges, but also holds promises for Pakistan, in view of which, there seems to be lesser tolerance for MBS’ mood swings. Not to forget that the design of the new Middle East policy is made in Rawalpindi, not Islamabad. Shah Mehmood Qureshi can be blamed for his style of delivering the message but not the message itself.

At the end of the day, it is not a breakup of a marriage but States re-arranging their priorities and choices. The pace at which the change happens matters. What ultimately comes out of it is a different story.

Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc. She tweets: @iamthedrifter

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  1. Yes, the marriage of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not over and it will never be. Both need each other. Pakistan needs money and Saudi Arabia requires the educated intelligent Muslim manpower, which can opererate the sophisticated armaments and airplanes She has obtained from US. The Saudis themselves are not educated as such. Hence, there will not be any divorce.

  2. Pathetic ! There is never anything good coming out when muslims and islam are involved anythere in the world. Inspired by the crusaders of Christianity, this faith is the most dangerous and an existential threat to humanity. Christians refocused on Jesus’s message of compassion are gave up the crusading mentality. Until these muslims do the same and exactly follow the christians’ journey, the rest of the world will have to teach them a stern lesson.

  3. Highly biased pro China & Pak article. Why print is giving space to such articles which doesn’t reflect the reality.

  4. Seems Ayesha is a biased writer. Anyways Pakistan will be swallowed whole by China sooner or later. Beware of the bigger Chinese plan, you are just a mere tool for China to climb high.. sucks..

  5. What a shame for Indians who are sharing their views on Pak-Saudi affairs.
    After making jokes about Pakistan’s financial and economic crisis, financing terrorism and claiming that they have the right to try to destroy Pakistan, they are shamelessly admitting that Pakistan has an important role to play in South Asian and Middle Eastern politics. And the day is not far when Pakistan will reach the pinnacle of development through the Economic Corridor.

  6. Ayesha Siddiqa is the cover name of an Indian Sikh lady from Rajasthan (India). She is employee of Research & Analysis Wing (Raw).
    Content of the article & comments by her country men (Indians) reflect a lot about hers n theirs mean Indian mentality.

    • Ayesha Siddiqa (Urdu: عائِشہ صِدّیقہ ‎), (born April 7, 1966), is a Pakistani political scientist, a political commentator and an author who serves as a research associate at the SOAS South Asia Institute.[1][2] She previously served as the inaugural Pakistan Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center between 2004 and 2005.[3][4]

  7. I am surprised how indian lobby is trying to build their narrative. Who has greed of grabbing land and resources is evident by indian brutal capture of Kashmir. Indian are Hindus not muslims but thier lust to get money keep them involve to eat muslim shit. Thats why too many hindus are working in gulf states. Sending thier womans for providing sex lust to arabs. History informed us very clearly that for any benefit minor or major Hindu accept the hegemony of conquerors. Thier best need is chitar at thier naked head. Any country / nation who put this effort they accept thier existence. So we advise hindus not to poke thier dirty nose in any one shit , it will create another history. As on bullying of America india is going to war with china although she knows that they need toilets instead of Raffaele.

    • Mirza
      Grapes are always sour for you.
      Whole world says during 1965 war India was in advantage, but you ahs celebrate on winning.
      U r shameless. U ahs discredit women in the name of God. U ahs kill other religions in the name of God. U kill people who condemn ur religion as though God cannot punish those people. Actually u dont believe in God but do ebil things in the name of God.

  8. Wasim Akthar ; Why ? Not at all.
    And why not to struggle against the hate and enemosity. Instead going under a state , which does not share any history & cultural contexts to us . Especially sub continent , which has its own history.

  9. Pakistanis have this delusion that they will get Kashmir and eventually all of India. Instead of just reconciling and setting issues with India, they are taking a course of confrontation. This will not end well for Pakistan. In their animosity drive journey of hate, they have befriended nations that they think is the most powerful at that instant. The belief that China will somehow help them in their battles against India is a pipe dream. If there is an escalation and a war between any two nations in the sub-continent, it is unlikely that anyone else will be allowed to participate in it. The world order today is not the same as in 1945. The world has changed, Pakistan needs to change with it. The recalcitrance shown by the establishment of Pakistan is short sighted and not in the interest of the sub-continent.

    Pakistan wants to punch above its weight, that will never happen.

  10. Well, the last visit by Pakistani officials to Saudi Arabia is a prove that Pakistan wants to repair the damage they have caused.
    It is okay that they were misled by the promises of other countries, but it will never be okay to black-mail Saudi Arabia with their actions.

  11. Nehru was called “Rasul us Salama” (Messenger of Peace — the context was the visit during the Suez crisis) and NOT “Rasul ul Islam”. This error can cause trouble so please correct.

  12. Pakistan has been lured by Chinese bu way of investments and arms supply but chinese are shrewd people and will ask for its pound of flesh soon.
    Very soon Chinese will be new owners of Pakistan.

    • Pakisthan is a failed state which cant even hold on to its self respect
      China will simply wipe their arse with paki toilet paper and throw it into the fire

  13. Chinese greed for land doesn’t even spares its friends. Look at their land grab from Nepal and Philippines.
    In future China will rename Pakistan as their province of South Xinjiang and will do to its inhabitants what they are doing to Uighur there.

  14. The main criteria is population. Iran has more population than GCC. And Pakistan has the most. Therefore Pakistan thinks that in the event of of a conflict its army can conquer the GCC. At present Iran is stopped from crossing the Persian Gulf by the US. There is no love lost between GCC and Pakistan. The Saudis are afraid of Egyptians more than Pakistanis. India has to shore up its presence in the GCC through military and technical labour. The Arabs trust Hindus more than the Muslims of Pakistan.

  15. Pakistan is really happy to be on China’s side! It doesn’t matter that (1) China is crushing the uyghur muslims (where is muslim brotherhood of Pakistan) (2) Pakistan is full of Chinese debt for which China is only delaying payments, but not writing off (3) In the name of infrastructure development in pakistan, the Chinese companies are getting the major projects and taking back the same money that Pakisatn has to pay. (4) There is hardly any cultural similarity between Chinese and Pakistani society, remember how the Chinese labourers man-handled the Pakistani police.
    The truth is this: Pakistan always wants to shamelessly hold the tail of a major power; it doesn’t mind being kicked by its powerful so-called friend.

    • @Binay- The Pakistani state has been created for this purpose only- to hold someone else’s tail. From the beginning, this is what is has done. Initially US and UK, now China.
      Its leaders, army and elites make merry. For the common people, the opium of religious indoctrination and hatred is served.

    • Not police, Pakistani soldiers in the full knowledge of their officers. And China likes to play the cat and mouse game . When Qureshi landed in China there was no one to receive him except Pakistan embassy officials. This is a psychological tactic to undermine the entity that it intends to impose upon.

  16. would argue the regional picture is changing to Pakistans detriment. How? very soon it will be Fab4, i.e China, Iran, Pakistan and NKorea Vs the world. When push comes to shove on breaking bonds, vassal states especially Pakistan will have to choose China for the fact that you’re so indebted financially that extrication isn’t possible. Means the shoulders Pakistan often cries on, i.e US, KSA, EU and the rest rendered unavailable! From then on its China says jump and you say how high!

  17. Thanks Dr Aaysha for the best analysis for the rearrangements of the Pakistani relations with Saudia and China.

    I presume strengthening of sino Pak ties are probably the need of the Pakistani state. The regional economic dependence most likely unleash to some extent the industrial development and infrastructure.

    • Pakistan has been reduced to a slave & beggar by its army which rules in Pakistan & its political leadership who suck up to its army as well as to China.

  18. Pakistan seek friends countries for political ecnomical and strategic Interests with mutual respect,Pakistan is founder member of the OIC and any issue related to rights of Muslim Nations or Muslim immigrants, OIC should take it seriously and act diplomatically or at United Nation or at International Justice Institutions, but unfortunately this origination did not prove him self as a representative of Muslim nations common Interests,,,

  19. Being a hired-gun, for countries that have wealth and power, never helped Pakistan’s sovereign existence. First it served as a lackey to the US, and then surrendered wholly before the loan shark, China. Occasional manoeuvres involving regional toughies like Turkey or Iran may create some nuisance value, but would only take the country thus far. In that sense, Bangladesh, a country of roughly same size, appears to have a better respectable existence and identity.

  20. The developments occuring in Middle East And other areas of the world , is an ultimate result of the changes ,being incorporated in the three world powers (US , RUSSIA & CHINA) foreign policy outlook.
    Anyhow hate & enmity amongst smaller countries must be reduced for the normalisation of relations.
    Still a little more time is required for , stability in the worldly destabilising scenario.

  21. Even if any differences have emerged over any issue due to some misunderstanding, the standard practice is to resolve them mutually through political and diplomatic channels available to both nations.

  22. Just wow..maskins have wild imaginations and grandiose plans.

    Saudis fund the maskins economy through cash and oil and expect it to support the Arab monarchy. Instead maskins are creating a bloc with Turks and Iran.

    Neither turkey nor Iran can provide the support which Arabs especially saudis and Qatari provide.

    What maskins willingly ignore is that China is providing loans to it not investment. As these loan become due with interest these maskins will start running to saudis again as turkey and Iran do not have the means to support.

    Arab monarchies have direct threat from Turkish and Iranian caliphate. Turkish looks more realistic as they ruled through ottoman till early 20th century.

    Turkish interference across the region is troubling for these monarchies. If maskins are in the bloc then with history as witness they will not bat an eyelid in sacrificing these monarchies for Turkish caliphate.

    At the end maskins will just be for soldiers now for monarchies and for Turks in couple of years.

  23. Fair enough…..but pakistan on its way to become Chinese colony can’t be denied.
    It will take 10 to 15 years but they are marching there….
    From one slavery to another , first Pakistani were descendant of Arab ,now thay are Turkish, you should not be surprised if they would say they have Chinese ancestors.
    Country riddled with massive inferiority complex and identity crisis.

    • Yeah we’re the ones with inferiority complex , your the ugly , malnourished and weak cowards so what do we have to have an inferiority complex over? 😂 just google Pakistan news and you will see 100s of articles written about it in the Indian media and you think we have an inferiority complex 😂😂😂

      • The fact that you need to indulge in name calling proves who has inferiority complex!! 😂 😂
        Btw, we have stopped thinking of you- apart from academic interests.

      • You slave India is vast country there are 40 English newspaper in India and 15 English news channels
        That’s why you find so many article about Ur shitty country paxtan

    • The thing is they are willing becoming vassal state of China.
      As Author says they’ve completely threw their lot with Chinese and are hopeful to get recognition as regional power and most importantly money.
      But reckoning would come when they have to pay debts,if they can’t I’m sure Chinese already have plans fro that which would further enslave and integrate them with China.
      But this is also on assumption Chinese will continue to rise and grow economically ,throwing Americans out of Asia which is frankly impossible and completing thier Made in China 2025 project as well as ‘Prosperous society in 2050’

      • So what, why should others be worried if Pakistan decides (if at all) to become vassal state of China or IGC India has already become vassal state of USA. Each country has the right to pursue th even policy it feels like.

    • maybe you should pull your thumb out of your backside and realize that over the last 70 odd years Pakistan has successfully navigated its foreign policy through unimaginable challenges, be it both the Afghan wars, or a hostile neighbor many times larger who recently tried to isolate Pakistan and instead branded itself as Hindu fascist nation.
      Pakistanis are pragmatic people and they know that every nation looks out for its own interest first, be it Saudi, China or Pakistan..

      • In the last 70 years majority of Pakistanis seceded from Pakistan and formed Bangladesh. Now if that is “successfully navigated its foreign policy through unimaginable challenges” then I wish to have whatever you are smoking. The truth is that present day Pakistan is a rump state, an idea that has failed available to hire by the highest bidder. Earlier it was the US, Gulf countries, Iran now it is China. A national policy bereft of imagination and consisting of only one- upsmanship has left Pakistan gasping for breath. With a vast majority of it’s benighted inhabitants having nothing to look forward to, all that exists is a bunch of elites playing silly geopolitical games and the rest like this author earning their wages by analysing these games. As pointless as it gets.

      • Sure. Looking forward to your eating pork and drinking wine in the month of Ramzan, like the Uighurs!

        Indian Muslims have a life of dignity. They can be (and they have been) whatever they want to be and they can go wherever they want to go on an Indian passport!

      • Make that choice carefully, lots of Uyghurs looking down on what you are wishing for here. Had you been an Indian Muslim, you’d know better.

      • Not police, Pakistani soldiers in the full knowledge of their officers. And China likes to play the cat and mouse game . When Qureshi landed in China there was no one to receive him except Pakistan embassy officials. This is a psychological tactic to undermine the entity that it intends to impose upon.

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