Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi seemed hellbent on demolishing one of the pillars of his country’s foreign policy when he openly threatened Saudi Arabia to either lead the Muslim ummah and OIC against India’s constitutional reforms in Jammu and Kashmir, or else he would be left with no choice but to advise his prime minister, who has proclaimed himself as the ‘Ambassador of Kashmir’, that Pakistan must move forward and call a session of all those Islamic countries that are ready to stand with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, “with or without” the Saudis. The unusually harsh tone of Qureshi against the Saudis, and all his dramatics – contorting his face and speaking in his usual affected manner – against a country that has for decades been a benefactor of a basket case that Pakistan has become is likely to hold serious implications, not just on Saudi-Pakistan relations, but also on Qureshi’s own political career.
Although Qureshi was quite clear that his strident stand against the Saudi’s was his personal opinion, it was endorsed by Pakistan’s foreign office which said that the minister’s statement was “a reflection of people’s aspirations and expectations from the OIC to take forward the dispute of Jammu & Kashmir internationally.” A day after his initial outburst, Qureshi softened his tone and tenor on Saudi Arabia. In a subsequent interview, even as he bent over backward to express gratitude for everything the Saudis had done for Pakistan, he clarified that because Pakistan considered Saudi Arabia as their own, a brother country, it felt entitled to remonstrate against them, something they wouldn’t do with any other country. There are reports that efforts were being made on the back channel to ensure that damage was controlled. Later, a meeting took place between the real ruler of Pakistan, Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and the Saudi Ambassador, and it has been revealed that Bajwa might be visiting Riyadh to smoothen ruffled feathers. While he is in Riyadh, it is expected that Bajwa will most likely push the envelope on not just seeking Saudi support in OIC on Kashmir but also a restoration of the $3.2 billion Saudi deferred oil facility which hasn’t been renewed, and appeal the Saudis to not demand the $3 billion they had loaned Pakistan for Balance of Payments support. The Saudis asking the Pakistanis to pay back what they have borrowed is a big deal because until now it has mostly been a free ride for the Pakistanis – the loans they take are never repaid to the Saudis. If now the Saudis are asking their money back, it isn’t because of the Saudi economic crisis but because of some serious strains in the bilateral relationship.
Clearly, there is something happening in the Saudi-Pakistan relationship that doesn’t quite add up. Qureshi is no green horn like many other members of Imran Khan’s cabinet. As a seasoned politician, he isn’t given to making emotional outbursts, unless of course it is with a purpose. All his pretensions of being deeply disturbed about Kashmir are only that. Around 20 years back, during a meeting at the PPP office in Islamabad, Qureshi told this writer that he was from Multan where Kashmir had no resonance and that it was an obsession only in the Raiwind to Rawalpindi belt of Punjab. Now suddenly, if he is pretending to be a bleeding heart on Kashmir, it isn’t out of love for the Kashmiris but more to peddle some agenda. This could be a personal political agenda – positioning himself as a crusader on Kashmir who is pushing for stronger domestic and international action.
Such a strident stand would burnish his ‘patriotic’ credentials and present him as an acceptable alternative to Imran Khan, if and when Imran’s ‘selectors’ decide to replace him. If his gambit succeeds, he will get credit for a robust policy on Kashmir; if he becomes the fall guy, he can present himself as a martyr to the Kashmir ‘cause’. He tried to pull something similar nearly ten years back when he rebelled against his own government on the Raymond Davis case in 2011. At that time too he was said to have been put up to play spoiler by the men in Khaki. And quite like in 2011, this time too there are rumours about the longevity of the Imran Khan government and for months there has been talk of Qureshi trying to manoeuvre himself as a possible replacement of Imran Khan. This is the Bhutto-in-Tashkent model. The problem is that it worked for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto because he was a charismatic leader, something Qureshi isn’t. Qureshi lost his own provincial assembly seat in the 2018 election and at best has a following in a couple of constituencies, and that too because of his Gaddi as a spiritual leader of a shrine.
Of course, his overweening ambitions aside, Qureshi couldn’t have been behaving the loose cannon without someone really powerful – in Pakistan this only means the military – giving him the nod. There are two or three possible explanations.
The first explanation is that this was a trial balloon. The Pakistanis have been trying hard for an year to get the OIC to play a more pro-active role on Kashmir. But the Saudis, along with the UAE and a few other important Arab countries, haven’t shown much interest. They have fobbed off the Pakistanis by getting the OIC Contact Group to issue meaningless statements. While the Saudi’s are a member of this 5 nation group, the other members are Pakistan, Turkey, Niger and Azerbaijan. Needless to say, apart from the Saudis, and to an extent Turkey, all the other countries are quite inconsequential even in the Islamic bloc. The Saudis however have not allowed any mention of Kashmir in the Mecca Declaration of OIC, nor have they allowed an extraordinary session of OIC foreign ministers on Kashmir in Pakistan, something the Pakistanis have been pitching for rather desperately. Worse, the OIC invited the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj as a guest of honour in UAE – the Pakistanis boycotted that session – in early 2019 after the Balakot attack. The Saudis, Bahrain and UAE have honoured Prime Minister Narendra Modi with their highest award – the last two countries did this after the constitutional reforms in Jammu and Kashmir last August. The Pakistanis were cut to the bone but continued to try for the foreign ministers meeting. It is now believed that through Qureshi, they have tried to rattle the cage. Issuing an ultimatum to the Saudis is a gamble. If it works, and the Saudis are pressured into doing Pakistan’s bidding, the Pakistanis can crow about their diplomatic success; if the Saudis react strongly, the Pakistanis can go on their knees and apologise profusely and blame it all on Qureshi, whom the Saudis don’t like much anyway because they see him as someone who earns his wealth from a grave – the shrine whose custodian he is.
The second possible explanation is that Qureshi was signalling the beginning of a shift of strategy in Pakistan’s playbook in the Islamic world. Most Pakistanis disparage the OIC as “Oh I see”, an organisation that really delivers nothing on the causes dear to the Islamic Ummah. For some time now, there have been stirrings to build an alternative Islamic bloc which isn’t tied to or tied down by the Arabs. Among the countries that appear keen on this new bloc are Iran, Turkey and Malaysia. Both Iran and Turkey have very strained relations with the Saudis, partly for historical, sectarian, cultural and ethnic reasons, and partly for geo-political reasons. In the Islamic world, the Arabs are the top dogs, the Persians and Turkic people form the second and third rung. Countries like Pakistan and Malaysia are the bureaucratic equivalent of Class IV employees of the Ummah (or in Pakistan’s bureaucratic parlance, the below Grade 10 employees).
Last year, the Pakistanis along with other countries tried to sow the seeds of an alternative OIC when a proposal was floated for a global Islamic TV channel and a summit was organised in Kuala Lumpur, where one of the issues that would be highlighted was Kashmir. The Saudis however were furious. The Saudi Crown Prince, who had given his personal aircraft to Imran Khan to travel to the UN General Assembly, took back his plane, forcing Imran Khan to travel back in a commercial airliner. Later, the Saudis warned the Pakistanis that if they dared to do go ahead with Malaysia, not only would the Saudis cut off all financial support – they gave the Pakistanis $6.2 billion in 2018-19 – but also deport Pakistani workers (who send around $5 billion every year in remittances), and replace them with Bangladeshis. Imran Khan succumbed to the threat and did not go to Malaysia. But the cracks had already appeared in the relationship. The Pakistanis were not just cut up about the lack of support on Kashmir, but also the growing closeness between Saudi Arabia and India, both political and diplomatic, and also in security and economic domain. Over the last few years, the Saudi-India relationship has strengthened – Saudi have deported terrorists and fugitives to India, the economic relationship is burgeoning, the political ties are better than any time in the past. Not just the Saudis, but also with their close allies UAE, India’s relations have become extremely close and strong. This was Pakistan’s playground and now India was crowding them out.
Apart from the India factor, there were other problems that had started to emerge in the Pak-Saudi relationship. Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi-UAE forces in the Yemen operations in 2015 didn’t go down well with both the Arab countries. At that time, the Chinese were sinking in money into Pakistan under the CPEC project and Pakistan’s ailing economy was given a boost. With the Chinese keeping their back – Xi Jinping had reportedly assured Nawaz Sharif that the Pakistanis that China would stand behind them in the event its ties with the Arab world unravelled – the Pakistanis felt bold enough to say no to the Saudis. The Chinese also blocked Saudis becoming a strategic partner in CPEC, something that the Pakistanis had announced after Imran Khan’s visit to Riyadh in September 2018. The Pakistanis were also chary of getting dragged into the Saudi-Iran sectarian conflict because of its repercussions inside Pakistan. Add to this, Pakistan’s growing closeness with Turkey which was emerging as an important security partner for not just Pakistan’s overt but also covert wars especially against India. With the Saudi-Turk relationship, always a little testy, going into a tailspin as a result of the Khashoggi affair, the Saudis were never going to look kindly on any compact with the Turks and Iranians. But the Pakistanis might be feeling that the time had come to break loose from the Saudi strings and exercise strategic autonomy. At the very least, hold this as a threat to make the Saudis address their concerns.
The third explanation is a rather sinister one, but cannot entirely be ruled out given Pakistan’s propensity for adventurism. The Pakistanis have for long developed deep contacts in the Saudi system. Pakistani forces are stationed in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly for training and advisory purposes. Some reports even claim the Pakistanis are there to defend the royal family. Given the divisions inside Saudi Arabia, could the Pakistanis be part of a deeper conspiracy by some other faction of the royal family? Although it sounds a little far-fetched and quite speculative, could the Pakistanis be aware of something, or even be a part of some such plan to topple the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman? Even the slightest possibility of something like this would mean that the presence of Pakistani security personnel in Saudi Arabia constitutes a danger to the royal family which really needs to reconsider using a mercenary army for its protection. For the Pakistanis, despite MbS having arranged Imran Khan’s meeting with US President Donald Trump and promising big investments in Pakistan, his impetuousness and his outreach to India makes him very unreliable and raises questions over the future trajectory of Saudi-Pakistan relations. Clearly, they would prefer someone more conservative at the helm in Riyadh, someone who will stick to the old template in which Pakistan was the ‘most favoured nation’.
It is entirely possible that the Pakistanis will back down from taking on the Saudis. The economic, diplomatic and political implications of going against the Saudis extend to going against virtually the entire Gulf and other Arab states. But the cracks that were already visible have widened and while they might still be papered over for some more time, they are unlikely to be repaired completely. Can India make use of this opportunity to further strengthen its relations with the Saudis and other of its close allies like the UAE?
Sushant Sareen @sushantsareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.