- The changes in Saudi-Pakistan ties are part of realignments in the whole region
Islamabad-Riyadh relations are historically at their lowest ebb. In the past, Pakistan always prioritized Saudi interests in the region but now the dynamics are changing for the good.
Saudi Arabia has been a cash cow for Pakistan. It’s high time for Pakistan to contour its foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia particularly after two significant events damaging Muslim countries’ interests of Muslim countries: the UAE-Israel peace deal that will definitely be followed by Saudi Arabia putting a full stop to the Palestinian struggle, and Riyadh’s silence over the brutalities in Kashmir by the Indian armed forces. A few weeks back, Riyadh also demanded the return of loan packages of $6.2 billion including oil credit facility (free oil) of $3.2 billion. This was given back right away by the Pakistani government with the help of its well-weathered partner China. This was a signal of distant relations between two old allies but now Pakistan gave signal to Saudi Arabia about relations on equal basis.
If Saudi Arabia can diversify its relations that Pakistan has options too. It does not mean a complete abandonment of each other; it’s rather a more sensible approach of Pakistan to rearrange its strategic calculus and rearrange its priorities
Saudi Arabia has given oil supplies to Pakistan at a very high cost. Not the monetary cost, the social, political and high economic costs of adopting a pro-Saudi foreign policy without analyzing cost benefits. Riyadh has used Pakistan for countering the Iranian influence in the region by propagating, training and funding the Wahhabi school of thought in the country. This resulted in brutal sectarian violence and killings of thousands of people in the country. The making of extremist sectarian violent groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhagvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba were fruits of Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia has always had strong influence in the public spheres of Pakistani society. According to some sources, the Taliban were also recruited on the basis of Deobandi and Wahhabi sects that resulted in attacks on Shias even in the streets of Pakistan. In 1986, because of thr strong Saudi influence, fatwas of apostasy against Shias were given by some funded clergymen. This also damaged the society of Pakistan causing hatred on the basis of sects. Export of Wahabism along with oil was a gift of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan that caused huge violence in the society. And because of this very reason Pakistan refused to send its troops in the Yemen war.
The shift of Pakistan’s strategic focus from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, Malaysia and China is pinching Saudi Arabia. Because in the near future Turkey might pose potential challenges to Saudi leadership in the Muslim world and China is a grave challenge for the “close” ally of Saudi Arabia, the USA. The refusal of Saudi Arabia in calling the OIC for highlighting the atrocities on Kashmiris by the Indian armed forces and its territorial issue, is a signal for Pakistan to drop the policy of appeasement. The statement of Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi after the Saudi refusal of a special OIC meeting over Kashmir is a sign of Pakistan’s foreign policy shift and a message to Saudi Arabia of its declined importance for Pakistan.
Pakistan has kept the policy of neutrality in the Middle East. It has also supported the Saudi narrative on Syria. On the other hand, whenever Pakistan has not abided by Saudi interests in the region, it instantly receives threats of the return of its labourers. Saudi Arabia’s strong strategic military agreements with India and its silence over Kashmir is an indication for Pakistan to alter its foreign policy.
It seems as if the region is moving towards the making of new alliances. These alliances include two new blocs. The first bloc consists of Arab nations, the USA and Israel on the other hand is Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Russia and China. While analyzing the current situation Pakistan is shifting its foreign policy that includes no military stand-offs and proxies in their country. It shows that Islamabad is more heedful of establishing strong economic and diplomatic ties with its “immediate neighbors” that also include Iran. Putting the religious affiliations in the corner. Pakistan is moving towards a paradigm shift that is all about economic progress, security and stability in the region. Pakistan has to prioritize its own interests instead of serving the interests of allies. It’s time to analyze the situation keenly and take important decisions that will determine the future of Pakistan. In the mid 1960s Pakistan has rearrange its relations by shifting from Iran to Arab states after Iran’s close relations with India and funding of unrest in Baluchistan. This was the time when strategic depth was developed as a concept and again the time has come to review.
The foreign policy of appeasement and pleasing should be changed for Arab Nations and a policy of “partners not masters” should be adopted for a more balanced approach in the near future. The Arabs’ increasing close ties with the USA, Israel and India clarify the whole situation. Arabs are finding a secure bloc as after 2023, they are foreseeing threats to their leadership and rule over the entire Muslim countries as the crown might be shifted from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
In the changing geopolitical situation, it will be considerably less costly for Saudi Arabia to sideline Pakistan and Gwadar than damage its relations with the USA by establishing ties with China. Pakistan has to decide its direction for the future and reevaluate the strategic worth of Saudi Arabia in the changing geopolitical situation. If Saudi Arabia can diversify its relations that Pakistan has options too. It does not mean a complete abandonment of each other; it’s rather a more sensible approach of Pakistan to rearrange its strategic calculus and rearrange its priorities.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]