Pakistan-Saudi Arbia Relations: Shifting Stands?

The decades old bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is built upon religious, strategic, military and economic interests. The troika of defense, dependence and deference persistently shape the contours of this bilateral relation. Though, relations in transactional world are categorically shaped by narrow self interests but Pakistan-Saudi ties imbibe certain qualitative features such as spiritual cohesion and ideological bonding. The people of Pakistan have a strong attachment to Islam. Hence, the people of Pakistan enormously respect Saudi Arabia as the origin of Islam, where the two holiest cities Mecca and Medina are situated. Millions of Pakistanis visit Saudi Arabia each year for pilgrimage of Hajj and Umrah. In retrospect, both countries have strived their best to compensate during instances of diverging national interests and this exhibits the continuity of this special relationship. The changing political leaderships and fluctuating international political developments have tested the resilience of this ironclad nexus between Nuclear Power Pakistan on one hand and petro-powerhouse Saudi Arabia on the other hand. The era of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is no exception to this persistent trend. Pakistan has always paid special attention to daunting charisma of this Arab strongman in its diplomatic calculus, thus Muhammad bin Salman`s visit to Pakistan in February 2019 was treated as the biggeststate visit since Chinese President Xi`s in 2015. MbS was greeted by Prime Minister Imran Khan and given a red-carpet welcome with a 21-gun salute. Prime Minister Imran Khan himself drove the Saudi Royal to the Prime Minister’s residence, where he was met by an honour guard. Furthermore, MbS became the first guest to stay at the Prime Minister’s house. Muhammad bin Salman has persistently exhibited his favorable propensity towards Pakistan. The 20 billion dollars lucrative investments concomitant with deals galore in cash-strapped Pakistan was somber reminder that prescient predictions aside, Saudi Arabia will continue to lend colossal economic support to Pakistan under leadership of de facto Saudi ruler MbS. Pakistan was in the grip of a major debt crisis and was seeking a $12bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund, but had yet to sign the deal that comes with tough conditions. MbS extended the olive branch to Pakistan amid bleak economic dynamics to cajole the world that Pakistan owes favorable investment and business climate.

The Crown Prince was accompanied by a high-powered delegation, including leading businessmen and cabinet ministers, who shortly after their arrival in Pakistan signed a spate of agreements totaling more than $20bn. MbS candidly asserted that “It’s going to grow every month, every year,” while explaining future trajectory of economic cooperation between the two countries. “We believe Pakistan is going to be a very important country in the coming future and we want to be sure we are a part of that.” Moreover, during era of Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia had helped keep Pakistan’s economy afloat by propping up its rapidly dwindling foreign exchange reserves with a $6bn loan, giving Islamabad breathing room as it negotiates the bailout with the International Monetary Fund In order to further understand the emerging dynamics in Pakistan-Saudi ties during era of Muhammad bin Salman, the royal who heralded new era in Saudi monarchy, holistic observation of  this royal`s personality and way of rule is very important. The meteoric rise of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman  reverberated round the entire Middle East and world at large. Being the favorite sixth son of King Salman, Mohammad bin Salman rose from obscurity to global fame within short span of time. He subsequently resorted to usher his potential and demonstrated that self-aggrandizement or financial embezzlement is not his sole objective, a precedent set by other monarchs, but he really wants to steer the Kingdom towards novel trajectory. Acting like quintessential populist messiah, he embarked upon grand rejuvenation plan of Saudi civilization, economy and defense. By granting women long fought right to drive, he exhibited his progressive propensity. His economic roadmap that is “vision 2030” tends to revamp the contours of Saudi economic trajectory towards more sustainable options such as renewable energy, tourism and technology. This depicts his propensity to relinquish orthodox rules and pave way for innovation.In his scramble for investments in the East, Mohammed bin Salman today is dedicated to deepening and diversifying ties with Pakistan. Pakistan constitutionally being an Islamic Republic and the sole nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country is strategically placed to mediate the world`s most fierce geopolitical competitions in Middle East. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is undergoing inevitable structural adjustment plans in their bid to diversify their economic toolkit, from a traditional hydro-carbon based economy to a dynamic one, and this economic sense will serve as buffer against economic and geostrategic shocks. As an emerging trans-shipment powerhouse, Pakistan and its flagship project the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is potentially a strategic prospect to diversify Saudi Arabia`s investment portfolio and trans-regional trade partnerships. The MbS` vision ‘2030’ tends to diversify and modernize the Saudi economy and for that purpose, Pakistan presents itself as an excellent opportunity for investments.

Myriad regional developments illustrate that regional order is dramatically changing after Muhammad bin Salman`s ascent to throne such as rapprochement with Israel, burgeoning Indian footprint, and American strategic retrenchment. To navigate these turbulent waters of regional realpolitik, Pakistan must refurbish its Middle East grand strategy and Saudi centric diplomacy by robustly ‘marketing’ its potential, to build sustainable relationships, instead of expecting intermittent Arab largesse. Now the question arises that can Pakistan and Saudi Arabia refurbish their ties under the new dynamic leadership of Muhammad bin Salman and Pakistani PM Imran Khan, steering the course out of vicious transaction towards mutually beneficial cohesion? From 2018 through most of 2019, it seemed as if Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had a budding friendship. As Khan came to power in the summer of 2018, a Saudi economic aid package was already in the works — partly the result of the Pakistan Army’s military diplomacy. In October 2018, Khan returned to Saudi Arabia for the second time in as many months at the personal request of MbS to attend his Future Investment Initiative conference.. The first $1 billion tranche of the $3 billion loan package to Pakistan was delivered while Abu Dhabi, Riyadh’s copartner in the region, followed with a comparable aid package. Thus, during PM Imran Khan`s May visit to Jeddah saw both actors agreeing to mend their strained ties. Hence, Saudi Arabia and longstanding ally Pakistan signed several agreements on Saturday 8th May and vowed to revive ties strained by months of disagreement over policy on the Kashmir dispute. On his seventh visit to the wealthy kingdom since his 2018 election, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was given a warm welcome by Saudi officials in the western coastal city of Jeddah. “They affirmed the depth of relations between the two brotherly countries and underscored the importance of expanding and intensifying aspects of bilateral cooperation and  coordination,” a Saudi statement said.In the latest attempt to reinvigorate the relationship, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for a three-day visit with Saudi leadership. Ahead of Khan, Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, reached Riyadh on to lay the groundwork for a fresh start. Meanwhile, Tahir Ashrafi, Khan’s special aide on religious harmony, told media outlets that talks will cover a green deal; enhanced trade cooperation; and collaborations in media, information, and cultural exchange. He said they will also discuss a joint strategy against terrorism.Owing to his reformatory proclivities, Crown Prince MbS is most revered foreign dignitary in Pakistan. His bonho-mie with Pakistani PM and financial pipeline during strenuous economic situation  made him win the hearts of Pakistanis. During his visit to Pakistan in February 2019, MBS assured Prime Minister Imran Khan: “Consider me an ambassador of Pakistan in Saudi Arabia.” If Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under de facto ruler MBS successfully achieves economic rejuvenation concomitant with substantial societal change, then it will bode well not only for Islamic world but also for global community.Retrospectively, history matters little in the bilateralrelationship today. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal once described ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty.” Likewise, both partners share an extensive economic relationship.

Currently, 2.5 million Pakistan’s contributes to the economic prosperity of KSA and it also generates remittances of $2 billion for Pakistan. Also, bilateral cooperation is further deepened in the energy sector as KSA is the largest source of the petroleum industry of Pakistan. It also plans to set up a $10Bn oil refinery in Gwadar and likely to invest in the Reko-Diq mine. KSA also vows to use CPEC routes to supply petroleum products. Besides, multidimensional military cooperation over the years both states have developed a strong military nexus. KSA is the largest importer of Pakistani arms and defense products. Approximately 70000 Pakistani personnel serving in the KSA’s military. However, the paradigm shift in the regional geopolitical sphere has made the relations subtle and elusive, which needs to be addressed through mutual diplomatic efforts. From Pakistan’s perspective, following reformative policy measures can be opted to ensure the enduring and smooth trajectory of bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia. As Riyadh has assured its supportfor the BRI and vowed to diversify its economy from a largely oil-based model through collaboration and foreign investments, this is a key converging point of economic interests. Pakistan’s foreign policy statecraft must be cognizant that foreign policy is not an end itself, rather means to achieve national objectives, through diplomatic tactics and means available at the state`s disposal. The success or failure of diplomatic maneuvering substantially depends upon means available which can cajole foreign actors to capitalize. These means could be economic prowess, military largesse, cultural artifacts or ideology. Pakistan can launch multi-pronged charm offensive in any region, including Muhammad bin Salman`s Saudi Arabia, if means to achieve Pakistan’s foreign policy agendas are diversified and effectively ‘marketed’ through diplomatic tactics. Going forward, Pakistan should by all means work towards improving and strengthening the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, this should not come at the cost of sovereignty; this country must remain free to take decisions regarding foreign policy that are in its best interest. Moreover, Pakistan must work hard to stabilize its internal economic and political situation so that both friends and foes are unable to exploit its weaknesses.From the Saudi perspective, it holds unconditional assistance over its diplomatic endeavor from Islamabad, and cordial relations with a nuclear state potentially uplifts its posture in the realm of politics. The majority of the political pundits or experts usually take one side of the picture- apprising the dynamics of relations through the lens of diplomatic and economic exigencies of Pakistan, however, it always holds a twofold trajectory that serves the interests of KSA and Pakistan respectively. It is quite evident, Pakistan is shifting its diplomatic preferences from security to a geo-economic oriented state. This transition also allows it rejuvenate to its ties with old allies in aligned the contemporary dynamics of the global paradigm. The stalled ties with Pakistan means, ultimately push Pakistan towards the Iranian bloc that has been on the rise given the recent trends of the geo-economic developments under the umbrella of BRI. In a broader spectrum, Pakistan and KSA remain the front line allies of the USA however in recent years the strategic partnership of both thestates under flux due to the shift of the US policies, and with Biden administration, at center stage. In such circumstances, KSA can look forward towards Beijing to uplift its weightage vis-à-vis its relations with the great powers, and in this domain, Pakistan has already become a key mediating prospect. Likewise, KSA tends to foster an alliance with the great power-driven through its security exigencies, in particular concerning Iran.Given the fact, the cordial ties bring positive-sum gains for both the actors, in an account of this, Pakistan needs to revisit its diplomatic maneuverings towards the KSA. First, there is an existing gap that spurs into misperceptions-Islamabad should reassure the kingdom’s leadership that ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia remain firm despite Is-lamabad’s engagement with other Muslim countries, and such efforts are envisioned to empower the global Muslim community rather than creating fissures.

Over the past few years, the bilateral ties between the Pak-KSA preluded with skepticism and uncertainty, and military establishment has been the major source of conducting diplomacy, therefore there is a dire need off intersection into the domestic policy apparatus to clear the air. In addition to that, on the matter of Israel recognition, the state-level delegation should present a clear and staunch narrative based on the pronouncement of national interests, rather than opting for a policy that places it in an unorthodox position. In institutional mechanism, Islamabad needs to look at dynamics of ties beyond the bilateral level and in this regard, inclusive affordable cooperation to the KSA through OIC, GCC forums can another key venue to transcend their sphere of ties. Even the Great Powers have committed colossal foreign policy blunders despite plethora of intellectual and material resources at their disposal. Pakistan has never pursued expansionist designs or what Paul Kennedy refers to as “Imperial Lurch”. Pakistan`s second major foreign policy decision was influenced by American interest to safeguard access to oil in GCC states. Shrewd foreign policy decision making requires holistic indigenous knowledge, experience and understanding of particular region. Middle East is the most volatile region of world featuring myriad flashpoints, burning conflicts, civil wars and geopolitical faultlines. Ironically, the region also boasts wealthiest states of world that can influence corridors of power in Great Powers. Likewise, inter-state level contentions are another key driver that opens a window for Pakistan’s role as mediator, pushing the peace agenda, Pakistan can offer to mediate a role to defuse the escalating tensions between the Middle Eastern states. It is pertinent to mention that Israel’s normalization drive in the Middle East is at the peak, Indian would pitch deceitful propaganda against Pakistan- KSA pressurizing Pakistan for Israel recognition through print, electronic and social media that needs to be neutralized proactively. As far as military cooperation is concerned, Saudi Arabia’s largest importer of Pakistani arms, state officials visit must ensure the probability maximizations of the weapons exports to the KSA. For that Islamabad can extended assistance in defence cooperationmilitary training programs, conducting joint exercises would further propel the bilateral ties. Pakistani Diaspora in the KSA has been another key prospect of cooperation, currently, over 2.5 million Pakistanis work in the KSA and send remittance to the tone of roughly between $5 billion to $6bn that remains one of the major resources for the foreign remittances, Pakistan should seek maximum concessions for them to ensure the economic leverages intact. Besides manpower, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan canalso work closely within the framework of “Saudi Vision 2030.” The two countries have unexploited proven mineral resources. Thus, investment in geophysics and other mining-related disciplines will pay huge dividends in the long run. Over the Yemen and Syrian crisis, Pakistan should persist in its non-interventionist approach. Offer KSA, extended CPEC partnership that will deepen its regional sphere of engagement.To conclude, both the nations need to avert the grievances and resentments concerning their dynamics of bilateral ties to foster a strong prospect of sustainable engagement and cooperation for the future. A pragmatic policy based on positive sum-gains by Islamabad- Riyadh would better accomplish their respective interests. Any opportunity for regional peace and stability must be capitalized by Islamabad to uplift its posture. Moving forward, Pakistan should, by all means,  work towards improving and strengthening the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, this should not come at the cost of Pakistan’s national sovereignty by any means; Pakistan must remain free to make decisions regarding foreign policy that are in its best interest. Moreover, Pakistan must work hard to stabilize its internal economic and political fault lines in order that both friends and foes are unable to exploit Pakistan’s transient structural vulnerabilities.

As an emerging transshipment powerhouse, Pakistan offers substantial opportunity to Muhammad bin Salman`s Saudi-Arabia, under umbrella of CPEC, to remain relevant in Eurasian Century. A dynamic foreign policy can ensure Pakistan`s primacy in emerging Saudi calculus by marketing its contemporary potential through multipronged charm offensive. Pakistan has never channelized its diplomatic clout in the region to alleviate regional and domestic security concerns. For instance, Pakistan`s foreign policy statecraft has never projected the country as counter terrorism model, worthy of emulation. The statistics by National Counter Terrorism Authority Report 2018 enshrined that Pakistan circumvented domestic terrorism by 58pc from 2010. Pakistan`s Saudicentric strategy must cajole Saudi sponsored regional multilateral regimes, such as 41 country Islamic Military Counter (IMCTC), to combat terror threat by jointly

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About Amna Malik 53 Articles
Author is the President, Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Mélange int’l Magazine’ and ‘ The Asian Telegraph’.