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.
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.
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.