Ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been strong for decades, with hardly been any misunderstandings to speak of. In one notable exception, Saudi Arabia showed its anger four years ago when Pakistan did not join its war in Yemen. Afterwards, Pakistan was careful not to further damage relations with the Saudis, lest relations reach a nadir that Pakistani policymakers could not afford. After all, Pakistan showcases its friendly ties with Saudi Arabia more than with any other country except for China.
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government has been asking friendlier countries, including Saudi Arabia, to financially assist it. Pakistan desperately needs money to shore up its foreign reserves. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently visited the kingdom for the same purpose.
But Pakistan-Saudi ties have a much deeper basis than the current financial woes. For one thing, people-to-people ties are strong. There are numerous Pakistani expatriates – around 2 million — working in Saudi Arabia. They send remittances back to Pakistan to support their families. And for many Pakistanis, whether poor or rich, a common last wish is to perform Hajj in the kingdom after retirement. Saudi Arabia hosts the two holiest cities of Islam, and performing Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca — at least once in a lifetime is a major obligation for those Muslims who can afford it.
There is also a long history of political and security convergence. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, throughout the 1980s, Saudi Arabia collaborated with Pakistan to defeat Soviet forces. The Saudis pumped riyals into the country to support Mujahideen fighters.
Things changed somewhat when former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial days ended in 2008. A new civilian government came into power in Pakistan in the same year, under the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) led by Asif Ali Zardari. Zardari, who follows Shia Islam, tried to equalize Paksitan’s relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are rivals. Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni, while Iran – Pakistan’s neighbor — is the global leader for Shiites.
To some extent, Zardari succeeded in having Pakistan play a neutral role by taking up some important initiatives with Iranians. For instance, in 2008-2009, when Pakistan’s energy shortage started, the PPP government showed much interest in the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Pakistan’s side of the work on the gas pipeline did not begin, however, due to severe U.S. opposition. Pakistan-based independent analysts are of the view that Saudis at the time did resent the PPP government for hobnobbing with Iran.
Unlike Zardari, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a Sunni Muslim. He traveled to Saudi Arabia with his family during his years in political exile. He developed personal relations with Saudis in this period. Sharif, then, was inclined more toward Saudi Arabia than Iran, but, importantly, he did not fully join the Saudi camp, knowing that it would anger the Iranians.
Some independent analysts argue that finally securing Islamabad’s loyalty was the hidden reason Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) visited Pakistan. In Pakistan’s mainstream media and political circles, MBS’s visit was warmly welcomed. According to officials, the visit of MBS will lead to further strengthening Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia.
As for Saudi Arabia, MBS told Prime Minister Imran Khan to consider him the “Ambassador of Pakistan” in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, MBS also ordered the immediate release of Pakistani prisoners in the kingdom.
But critics say that Khan’s outreach to the Saudis is crossing precisely the lines Sharif took care to avoid, lest it led to a crossroads with Iran. Indeed, Pakistan’s relations with Iran hit a new low level following an attack on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in Sistan and Baluchestan province, killing 27. Sistan and Baluchestan borders Pakistan’s own Balochistan province.
A senior commander of the RGC claimed that the suicide bomber that targeted the guards was a Pakistani, as were the two facilitators. Iran, like India, has often complained that Pakistan gives safe harbor to terrorists who then conduct cross-border attacks.
Pakistan condemned the incident in Sistan and Baluchestan, but its officials also chided Iran for hurling accusations without solid proof.
Pakistan’s regional position is not in its favor. India is ratcheting up tension on the border with Pakistan, and is also trying encircle it through Afghanistan and Iran. Besides, India has also strengthened its ties with Saudi Arabia; MBS paid a visit to India immediately after leaving Pakistan. More than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia does trade with India. Although MBS signed investment agreements worth $20 billion during his visit, including an agreement to establish an oil refinery in Pakistan’s port town of Gwadar, Saudi Arabia has already set up an oil refinery in India. Unlike Pakistan, India has balanced its relations with the two rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Besides the oil refinery in Gwadar, Saudi Arabia is eyeing the multibillion-dollar Reko Diq mining project, also in Balochistan province. There are media reports that Saudi Arabia showing much interest in that project. Saudi interest in investing in Balochistan province of Pakistan, which borders Iran, has another purpose: to pursue its geostrategic interests in the region. The closer Saudi Arabia gets to Pakistan, the more Pakistan’s relations with Iran are expected to deteriorate.
When it comes to Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia are more or less on the same page – Washington, too, does not want to see Pakistan mend ties with Iran. The U.S. pressure campaign is having an impact; Pakistan is not the only country distancing itself from Iran.
On the other hand, there is a trust deficit between the United States and Pakistan, especially over matters related to Afghanistan. U.S. officials hold Pakistan responsible for Washington’s failures in Afghanistan, though Pakistan has time and again enunciated that the United States is scapegoating it for the Afghan conflict. Pakistan’s close ties with China have further angered Washington. There are some who believe that Pakistan wants Saudi Arabia to help mediate between the United States and Pakistan in order to normalize their ties if and when the United States pulls out of Afghanistan.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has also been anxious about the Taliban question, for two obvious reasons. First, Iran has secretly developed its own ties with the Afghan Taliban; second, high-level talks have been held with the Taliban in Qatar, with which Saudi Arabia is at a standoff. This situation has forced Saudi Arabia to get in touch with Pakistan to keep abreast of the current developments related to the Taliban question.
Muhammad Akbar Notezai works with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.