Pakistan-Arabia: Trouble in Paradise

Well established ever since Pakistan gained its independence in 1947, that country’s alliance with Saudi Arabia has recently been compromised by the Kashmir crisis and the rapprochement between Riyadh and New Delhi.

April 28, 2022: Emir of Medina Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz welcoming Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the Saudi holy city

Identity-based thinking in Pakistan harks back to the 1947 partition which separated the country from India after Britain’s withdrawal and when Pakistan became the first modern nation to be established in the name of Islam. In 1949, the new regime published its Objectives Resolution which specified as follows: “Whereas sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him is a sacred trust.” The preamble to the present constitution, ratified in 1973, reproduces that statement word for word. This affirmation of the religious identity of an Islamic Republic, with its large Sunni majority, is sustained by an ancient, though asymmetric relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose King is the “custodian of the two holy mosques”, located in Mecca and Medina.

A long partnership

As early as 1954, Saudi Arabia signed a Treaty of Amity with Pakistan, and the ties between them were strengthened at the time of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 and Israel’s war in June 1967. Under dictator Zia Ul-Haq (1977–1988), a new defence protocol was signed whereby hundreds of Pakistani officers were sent to train the Saudi armed forces while a Faysal Mosque, the world’s largest at the time, was built in Islamabad in tribute to the Saudi king. Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia cooperated even more closely and once the Talibans were in power, their consultations became more frequent – though Islamabad never managed to convince the Mullah Omar to extradite Osama Bin Laden in compliance with Riyadh’s wishes. As the years went by, the Kingdom promoted the expansion of the Pakistani madrasahs, speculating on the similarities between Pakistan’s Deobandi Islam,1 dear to Zia’s heart, and Saudi Wahabism. This was also a way of countering the influence of Iran in the wake of the 1979 Khomeini revolution in Pakistan which has a sizeable Shia minority.

In response to the sanctions that followed Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, Riyadh delivered oil to Islamabad at very generous discount prices. But in 2015, the Pakistani parliament turned down a Saudi request to send troops to Yemen, preferring an offer of mediation between Riyadh and Tehran. In 2017, by way of compensation, the former Pakistani chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, became the first commander of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, an international structure based in Riyadh. And in 2018 Pakistan reinforced its troops along the Saudi-Yemeni border. That same year, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) offered Pakistan over 6 billion dollars to cope with a default risk and announced an investment of 20 billion dollars in Gwadar, home port of the Sino-Pakistani economic corridor where the prince is launching his “Vision 2030” in an effort to diversify the Saudi economy.2

Disagreements over Kashmir

In New Delhi, following the triumphal re-election of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government in August 2019, the latter made a quantum leap in Kashmir. That erstwhile princely state has been administered half by India and half by Pakistan since the first war between the two countries in 1947-48. South of the Line of Control, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where a fiercely repressed insurrection has been smouldering ever since 1989, has seen its last margins of autonomy done away with and its status downgraded to that of “Union Territory”, under the direct administration of New Delhi. The central government has split off the Eastern territory, Ladakh, on the border with China, while a leaden shroud has come crashing down on Srinagar Valley, birthplace of the insurrection and home of parliamentary opposition.

In Islamabad, Imran Khan’s national-populist government, which wants to make Pakistan “a new Medina”, throws up its hands in horror, compares Modi with Adolf Hitler, speaks of genocide. It has called upon the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with its 57 member-States and based in Jeddah, to look into the matter. Under the aegis of Saudi Arabia, the OIC, as usual, keeps a low profile on this issue, confining itself to declarations by the Kashmir contact group and by its own human rights commission. By way of contrast, Turkey, Iran and Malaysia all condemn explicitly India’s Kashmir policies.

Thus, Islamabad welcomed the initiative taken by Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohammad for the organisation in Kuala Lumpur, in December 2019, of an “Islamic summit” to deal with all the issues affecting the Muslim word, Kashmir included. Under pressure from Riyadh, where this initiative was viewed as a first step towards building an entity to compete with the OIC, Imran Khan announced at the last minute that he would not be present at the Kuala Lumpur summit, to be attended nonetheless by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Qatari Emir, Hamad Bin Jassem Al-Thani.

There was still no sign of that OIC ministerial meeting on the Kashmir conflict, and so the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi finally issued an unusual warning directed at Riyadh: if the OIC cannot arrange that meeting, he said,“I will be forced to ask Premier Imran Khan to issue an invitation to all the Islamic nations prepared to join with us on the Kashmiri question and support the oppressed Kashmiri people.”3

In retaliation, Riyadh suspended an interest-free loan to Pakistan of one billion dollars, planned in 2018, and refrained from renewing an oil delivery with payment deferred. To put an end to this unprecedented crisis, the commander in chief of the Pakistani army, General Qamar Javad Bajwa travelled to Saudi Arabia on 17 August 2020, officially a routine visit involving bilateral military relations. A visit which paid off, since soon the Pakistani Foreign Minister backpedalled, praising the OIC’s “unambiguous” stands on Kashmir …4

The Indian parameter

Why does Saudi Arabia hold to this restrained position on Kashmir? The answer is, of course, to be found in the ties between Riyadh and India, strengthened under Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party government (the Delhi Declaration during King Abdullah’s visit in 2006, the strategic partnership signed when Singh visited Riyadh in 2010) and greatly intensified under Narendra Modi despite the ostentatious Islamophobia of Hindu nationalism. Modi has played up to all the Gulf monarchies, with Saudi Arabia at the top of the list. Twenty percent of the oil imported by India already comes from the Saudi kingdom, but the two countries intend to go further: MBS has announced an investment program of 100 billion dollars in India and Modi was guest of honour at the “Desert Davos”, the Saudi investment forum aimed at financing his “Vision 2030”.

Bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to 22 billion dollars in 2020–2021, as against a meagre 2 billion with Pakistan. Besides which, the Saudi-Indian partnership, strengthened in 2019, has been extended to include security and defence. The number of Indian expatriates in Saudi Arabia (some 2.2 million) is comparable to those from Pakistan. India is an official partner of Vision 2030, while Pakistan is a country burdened with a financial crisis, looking to Riyadh (and to the IMF) to bail it out. Even before the 2020 tensions, Pakistan had boycotted the March 2019 OIC conference in Abu Dhabi, where, for the first time, the guest of honour had been Indian foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj…

The alliance, despite everything…

So, despite all this, the ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain essential for Islamabad. And Riyadh, now that the 2020 crisis is over, fully intends to keep its influence on the world’s second most populous Muslim nation. More so considering the situation in Afghanistan after the Talibans’ return to power and the tensions between the Saudi regime and Iran. In December 2021, the OIC held a special meeting in Islamabad devoted to Afghanistan. Though failing to organise a ministerial summit on Kashmir, the organisation did come up with a diplomatic compromise in March 2022, by holding – again in Islamabad – another ministerial meeting to which Pakistan invited the Kashmiri leaders. The long declaration which concluded this summit attests to the encounter’s very broad agenda (climate change, Covid-19, Palestine, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Ukraine, Security Council reform…) and contains many compliments aimed at the summit’s host, Imran Khan, foregrounding a theme dear to his heart: Islamophobia. Above all, regarding the Kashmiri conflict, the document echoes the customary Pakistani diplomatic phraseology:

“We renew our unshakeable solidarity with the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir and express our full support for their inalienable right to self-determination, in keeping with the relevant UN Security Council and OIC resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri peoples. We condemn the massive human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, illegally occupied by India.”

A few weeks later, Imran Khan was out of a job after a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Elected Prime Minister on 11 April 2022, his successor Shahbaz Sharif made his first trip abroad to Saudi Arabia two weeks later, invited by MBS, combining a pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca with a summit meeting in Jeddah. The joint declaration that followed contained a reminder of the two countries’ “Islamic fraternal relations”, stressed their determination to develop closer economic partnerships and their identical views on the major international issues (Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine). Concerning Kashmir, the tone had evolved:

“Both parries stress the importance of a dialogue between Pakistan and India in order to solve the problems between the two countries, especially regarding the question of Jammu and Kashmir, in order to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

The moderation of the phrasing about Kashmir is a reminder of the importance for Riyadh of its relations with India. True enough, Saudi Arabia, the OIC and many other countries had protested what a spokeswoman for Narendra Modi’s party had said about the Prophet’s wife in June 2022 and she had been promptly dismissed. At the same time, Delhi had felt that the OIC’s criticisms of the ban decreed in the Indian State of Karnataka against the wearing of the hijab in schools were inappropriate. Does the increasing Islamophobia of Hindu nationalism put at risk India’s relations with the Middle East? And does it indirectly give a boost to Pakistan and its relations with Saudi Arabia? The Saudi leaders’ realpolitik with regard both to Israel and the Uyghur issue may suggest that Riyadh will try to maintain a balance between Islamabad and New Delhi which will serve both its economic ambitions and geopolitical interests.

1EDITOR’S NOTE. A Sunni Muslim school of thought, very prominent in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. It is named after the city of Deoband in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, where it originated. Deobandism advocates a traditional and apolitical Islam, as well as a literal reading of the scriptures.

2Ali Awadh Asseri, “Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s unique, profound and durable relationship”, Arab News, 24 April 2022. The author is a former Saudi ambassador in Pakistan. It was this relationship, carefully constructed over the years, that was endangered by the 2020 crisis.

3"Qureishi Asks OIC to Stop Dragging Feet on Kashmir"", Dawn, Karachi, 6 August 2020.

4Asad Hashim, " Pakistan-Saudi rift: What happened? “, Al Jazeera, 28 August 2020.