Pak-Saudi Relations: Reality Vs Rhetoric

Pak-Saudi Relations: Reality Vs Rhetoric
Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The three-day visit, May 7-9, generated a 16-point Joint Statement, including a mild mention of the Kashmir dispute (11th point) and reference to areas of bilateral cooperation (15th point with five sub-points).

Before proceeding further, let’s take a quick bird’s-eye view of relations since 2015, especially since December 2019.

Expectations and Disappointments

In February 2019, MbS, as the Crown Prince is generally referred, visited Pakistan. The government had rolled out the red carpet for him. At the time Saudi Arabia had pledged investment deals worth $20 billion with Pakistan, including $10 billion funding for an oil refinery in the city of Gwadar.

None of that came through. While relations had begun to go sour with Pakistan’s refusal to become a part of the Saudi alliance in Yemen (March 2015), matters hadn’t got out of hand until December 2019 when Riyadh (read: MbS) pressured Pakistan into staying away from the Kuala Lumpur Summit convened by then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. The summit was a trilateral effort by Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan. Saudis got very concerned about Iran’s participation and argued that the summit seemed to be an effort to create a separate bloc to undermine the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Riyadh’s leadership of the Muslim world.

Later, Khan went to Malaysia after the summit and made comments that were considered an oblique criticism of Saudi Arabia. Apparently, MbS later sent a clip of Khan’s remarks to him, a signal that the remarks had not gone unnoticed. Khan had said that he regretted staying away from the Kuala Lumpur Summit, adding that there was a misconception among some countries that the conference would divide the ummah.

The real snag came in February 2020 when Riyadh turned down a request by Pakistan to convene a special meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC. In the weeks and months following, Islamabad dug in and demanded that OIC pressure India on the Kashmir issue.

For its part, Riyadh called in a $1 billion loan it had extended to Pakistan. The loan was part of a $6.2 billion package announced by Saudi Arabia in November 2018. At the time Islamabad was struggling with a current account deficit and declining foreign exchange reserves. There was also a debate over whether or not to approach the International Monetary Fund. In mid-October 2018, talking to media editors, Khan had said that the government was approaching some friendly countries [read: China and Saudi Arabia]: “Their response is positive. I am quite hopeful that we will not have to approach the IMF for our economic needs.”

The Saudi package included $3 billion in loans and a $3.2 billion oil credit facility. This money provided Pakistan much-needed cash before the government finally decided it couldn’t do without an IMF bailout. After months of difficult negotiations, IMF approved a $6 billion bailout in July 2019. When Riyadh called in the loan, it was China which gave Pakistan $1 billion to repay the loan.
MbS is now trying to find space for himself within the region and in the Muslim bloc. But that does not mean his style of doing things will change drastically

Last Tuesday, after Khan’s visit, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told the media “that the PM’s visit helped defeat the designs of the elements that had been trying to drive a wedge between Islamabad and Riyadh.” This is rather amusing because in August 2020, Qureshi had said in a TV interview that if the OIC did not convene the meeting of the council of foreign ministers, he would be compelled to ask the prime minister to call a meeting of Islamic countries that were ready to stand with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. His comments begot much speculation about where Riyadh-Islamabad relations were headed.

There are other details, but we can eschew them for reasons of space. What is important is to flag a few broad points regarding the current improvement in relations. To this end, we must also spell out what is doable (rather than what is desirable) in terms of expectations on both sides.

What Next

First and foremost, rhetoric about the ummah and “historical and fraternal ties” aside, the era of traditional relations is over. Relations will instead be dictated by interests which in some areas will continue to diverge. This is both because of a growing sense in Pakistan’s policy circles that Islamabad cannot be part of any bloc within the Muslim world as well as the Crown Prince’s move away from the traditional manner in which Saudi monarchs operated within and without.

Second, notwithstanding the newly constituted Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council, relations on the Saudi side will negate any institutional mechanism. This is because of MbS’ personality and way of doing business. Reporters Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck’s Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power (2020) is a good peek into both MbS’ personality as well as his style of doing things. That being said, the Council is still a positive development from Pakistan’s perspective because Islamabad can use its secretariat to deal with issues listed under the Council’s remit: security and politics; economic cooperation; and information and culture.

In fact, last year when relations were at a low, Pakistan had suggested that both sides should have an institutional mechanism to deal with issues — i.e., let’s list the doable so we can avoid disappointments. Saudis weren’t interested at the time.

Third, Saudi Arabia is reaching out to Pakistan (and also Iran, Turkey and Qatar) because MbS’ waxen wings are feeling the heat of a new administration in the United States and the consequent new dynamics in the Greater Middle East. Gone are the days of his direct, personal access to the White House. With Trump gone, MbS has also lost his close friend Jared Kushner.

But this is not all. Biden is opposed to the Saudi war in Yemen. He wants to get back into the nuclear deal with Iran and reduce the US military footprint in the Middle East. Finally, the Jamal Khashoggi assassination has been taken very seriously by the current administration. MbS, at least until he is the de jure king, has been downgraded.

Corollary: MbS is now trying to find space for himself within the region and in the Muslim bloc. But that does not mean his style of doing things will change drastically.

Four, from Pakistan’s perspective, a rebalancing is good if it means that both sides understand what can and cannot be done and hence can or cannot be asked. Riyadh has interests and investments in India which we cannot challenge. In return, we should be free to conduct our relations with others in the Muslim bloc without a repeat of what happened with the KL Summit. That’s not a bad quid pro quo.

Five, it is good to get Saudi investments. It would also be good to get more people employed there. Even so, Pakistan needs to use the period of improved relations to start diversifying its workforce, both blue and white collar. We have long been supported by remittances from the Gulf. That has been both our strength and weakness. If we want to have more freedom to safeguard our interests, we need to address our weaknesses while we can.

This brings me to the final point. We are constantly looking for cash. There are only two sources for that: Saudi Arabia and China. Why do we look for cash? Because we have an economy that no one seems able to reform. Corollary: we are like Little Tommy Tucker who has to sing for his supper. Needless to say that when you are dependent on someone else for your supper, you will have to sing his tune.

It’s all very well to analyse the conduct of foreign policy, but in the end it is about deep pockets.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.