The agreement ending the rift with Qatar seems to have helped mitigate some regional tensions, but will the spirit of cooperation continue?
For decades, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have boasted strong political, economic, and security ties. The relationship has been further strengthened by strong interpersonal connections between Saudi royals and Pakistani civil-military elites. Yet, changing political dynamics in South Asia and the Middle East are increasingly complicating this relationship.
On the political level, the Saudi-Pakistani relationship has been built on numerous interpersonal friendships. In the past, the friendships between Saudi King Faisal bin Abdulaziz and Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prince Nayef and General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, and later King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and President Pervez Musharraf strongly influenced the bilateral relationship but also political events within Pakistan.
The countries also developed a close security partnership and, owing to the unique role of the military in Pakistani politics, it became a vital stakeholder in the relationship with Saudi Arabia; the bilateral relationship has historically been the strongest under military government in Pakistan. Defense cooperation was formalized by a 1967 accord and the dispatch of Pakistani military and air force trainers to Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the security understanding between the two sides was enhanced by the 1982 Protocol Agreement regarding the “Deputation of Pakistani Armed Personnel and Military Training.” This resulted in the deployment of nearly 15,000 Pakistani troops to the kingdom. These troops remained in Saudi Arabia for the duration of the Iran-Iraq War.
In practice, these deputations created a unique bond between the Pakistani security institutions and Saudi royalty. This special relationship was on display when Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz visited Pakistan’s nuclear installations in 1999. As a relatively pro-Iran government came into power in 2008 in Pakistan after the departure of Musharraf, the military became the principal interlocutor with Saudi Arabia.
This interplay between the civil-military elites in Pakistan and Saudi royalty was visible after the bilateral relationship encountered a crisis sparked when the Pakistani Parliament declined a Saudi request to send troops to Yemen in 2015 as part of Operation Decisive Storm. The Saudis were particularly dismayed by the lack of support they received from the government of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was their principal political client in Pakistan for decades. The relationship improved due to the robust engagement of Pakistan’s military leadership and an increase in security cooperation. Pakistan’s successive military chiefs developed a working relationship with the new Saudi defense minister and, subsequently, crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. When he stepped down from his position as Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif assumed the leadership of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. He was succeeded by General Qamar Javed Bajwa who had also served in Saudi Arabia for three years. Bajwa has played a key role in not only promoting Saudi-Pakistani defense ties but also rehabilitating the political side of the partnership, making more than six trips to the kingdom. It was under his leadership that the Pakistani military dispatched a composite brigade of 1,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. With 1,600 troops already deployed within the kingdom on a training and advisory mission, Pakistan became the only country with a significant foreign force in Saudi Arabia.
But Saudi Arabia’s ties with Pakistan’s civilian leadership remained strained until Imran Khan became prime minister. Khan managed to establish close ties with Mohammed bin Salman, and he participated in the 2018 Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh despite a global boycott following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The relationship reached a pinnacle when Mohammed bin Salman visited Pakistan in February 2019 and pledged to invest $21 billion in projects, including the construction of an oil refinery in the port city of Gwadar.
This bilateral warmth started to give way to complications in the aftermath of India’s move in August 2019 to annul the special status of its administered state of Kashmir. Pakistan banked on the support of the global Islamic fraternity against India, but the reaction from Saudi Arabia was muted due to the kingdom’s economic ties with India. On the other hand, Turkey, whose relationship with Saudi Arabia has become increasingly contentious, came out strongly in support of Pakistan’s position even when this came at the expense of Turkey’s relationship with India.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia approached the brink of a diplomatic crisis when Islamabad agreed with Turkey and Malaysia to hold a summit of Islamic countries in Kuala Lumpur to address issues concerning the Islamic world. With the inclusion of Qatar and Iran in the platform, Saudi Arabia increasingly viewed the summit as a challenge to its leadership of the Muslim world and an alternative to the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Pakistani leaders seemed oblivious to these concerns and only withdrew from the event after Saudi Arabia directly communicated its concerns to Pakistani decision makers. This did ease tensions between the two sides and the Saudi foreign minister immediately visited Pakistan and committed to hold an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting on Kashmir. But the episode put a dent in the personal relationship between Khan and Mohammed bin Salman and they haven’t communicated publicly since Khan’s December 2019 visit to the kingdom.
As ties with Saudi Arabia became tense, Pakistan’s relationship with Turkey blossomed as did the personal chemistry between Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During his February visit to Pakistan, dubbed as a curtain raiser by the Pakistani foreign office, Erdogan appealed to Pakistanis when he spoke emphatically on Kashmir and declared it to be as important to Turkey as it is to Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan also started broadcasting a Turkish television series that depicted the events leading to the founding of the Ottoman Empire. The show, laden with the theme of an Islamic awakening, has enthralled audiences across Pakistan but, most importantly, has been actively patronized by Khan as well. The celebration of Ottoman legends and a TV show endorsed by the Turkish president has not gone over well in Saudi Arabia, where it has been banned.
In the wake of these developments the relationship hit a new low when, in July, Saudi Arabia rescinded a support package it had given to Pakistan in early 2019. This financial aid package included a $3 billion balance of payments loan and an additional agreement to defer oil payments for one year, valued at $3.2 billion, with a possible 3-year extension. The balance of payments loan had been renewed in January, but in July Saudi Arabia demanded early repayment; Pakistan received $1 billion from China and is in negotiations with the kingdom on the repayment of the remainder. The deferred oil facility was not renewed after it expired in May. This swift Saudi pullout from the economic assistance program for Pakistan during the coronavirus pandemic spelled troubled for the partnership.
Tensions increased when the Pakistani foreign minister lamented the lack of Saudi support on the Kashmir issue and signaled that Pakistan might have to hold a meeting of like-minded powers outside the ambit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
This latest fissure in Saudi-Pakistani ties should be seen in the context of this breakdown in interpersonal connections between the leaders of each country, a lack of any serious Saudi outrage over the Kashmir issue, and the uptick in cooperation between Pakistan and Turkey. Still, it would be unwise to write an obituary for Saudi-Pakistani ties, which remain deeply rooted and multifaceted. Pakistan’s army chief, General Bajwa, recently visited the kingdom to stabilize the situation and put the relationship back on a mutually beneficial, but also realistic, pathway. Pakistan’s military spokesperson, in an attempt to limit the damage caused by the political leadership, also stressed the unquestionable Saudi centrality to the Muslim world. On the political front, Pakistani government representatives and political and religious leaders have been meeting with the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad to ease tensions. While these developments suggest that it is unlikely Pakistan will join another regional bloc, it is also unlikely that the structural reasons that triggered the crisis will go away anytime soon. There might also be a civil-military divergence on the matter within Pakistan; Pakistan’s foreign minister called upon the Qatari envoy to Islamabad right when Bajwa was meeting Saudi officials in Riyadh.
Pakistan’s leadership is in a difficult position as the country has limited leverage with Saudi Arabia and remains dependent upon Saudi economic largesse and expatriate remittances. Pakistan’s balancing game in the Middle East may no longer be a viable approach. With the rupture in personal ties between the Saudi crown prince and Pakistani prime minister, the Pakistani military will once again be the central player in this relationship.
is a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
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