Everything is not good between the once long-time allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The relationship which had been flourishing not so long ago is currently on the rocks, most notably reflected by the snub to the Pakistani Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa on his visit to Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan General Bajwa is currently on a trip to Saudi Arabia, apparently, in an attempt to iron out the strained relationship between the two countries. However, the Pakistani Army Chief General was rebuffed when his request for a meeting with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was turned down and he was fobbed off with obligatory meetings with the Saudi Vice Minister of Defence Khalid bin Salman and the Saudi Chief of General Staff Maj. Gen. Fayyad bin Hammad Al-Ruwaili.
What led to a strain in a flourishing Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship?
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had traditionally been strong allies which could largely be attributed to the commonality of the religion shared by the two. Islam has been an underpinning factor in holding the relations between the countries robust. However, until some time ago, Saudi Arabia was also one of the biggest economic benefactors of Pakistan. In 2019, Saudi Arabia had pledged to invest about $20 billion in Pakistan, including $10 billion investment to develop its Gwadar port.
Before that, Saudi had bailed out a plummeting Pakistani economy by granting Islamabad a generous loan package of worth $6 billion in 2018. The loan served as an elixir for the cash-strapped nation which was at that time under severe economic crisis, staring at an imminent financial collapse with shrinking foreign reserves and a swelling trade deficit.
The difference between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan emerged over the latter’s unyielding view on Jammu and Kashmir
The difference between the two long-time allies–Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–emerged when the latter sided with India over the Kashmir issue earlier this year. The dispute between the two countries took root in February 2020 when Saudi Arabia passed up Pakistan’s request to convene a special meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to get Muslim countries’ to condemn India on the Kashmir issue.
Ever since India hollowed out Article 370, stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its “separate status”, Pakistan has been demanding on a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to internationalise Jammu and Kashmir and get India to reverse the decision.
The recent utterances by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi further dented the already fragile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. “If you cannot convene it, then I’ll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris,” he had said. By this, Pakistan had threatened to split OIC, the international organisation of Islamic nations headed by Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is also threatened by the emergence of a new Muslim-world order
This is the not the only thorn in the frazzled ties between the two nations. The Kingdom also feel threatened by the emergence of a new bloc of Muslim countries that directly threatens Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Muslim ummah. Last year, Saudi Arabia had refused to attend a summit organised by Malaysia as it was not organised under the banner of OIC. In fact, Saudi even forced Pakistan to pull out of the international summit of Muslim leaders held in Malaysia.
The Turkey authoritarian ruler Erdogan had then revealed that Pakistan PM Imran Khan—who had passionately supported the summit—had to withdraw from the meeting after Saudi Arabia put pressure on Islamabad and issued economic threats to Pakistan. He claimed that the Kingdom had threatened Islamabad of repatriating 4 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia and also to withdraw $3 billion from Pakistan’s central bank even as Pakistan is teetering on the edge of a financial crisis.
According to the reports, Saudi had demanded Pakistan early repayment of a $3 billion loan. Earlier in August, Pakistan borrowed $1 billion from its all-weather ally–China to pay off Saudi Arabia.
The realignment of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical interests with India
While Saudi Arabia had been resolutely standing besides Pakistan for decades on its concerns vis-a-vis Kashmir and providing monetary and military assistance to Islamabad, the recent shift in its stance can be partly attributed to the geopolitical reality and the benefits derived from having a mercantilist relationship with India. India is the fourth largest trading partner of the Middle-east Kingdom and the value of the bilateral trade between the two countries is close to $28 billion, an overwhelming of which had been due to the crude exports to India.
Besides, the trade ties between India and Saudi Arabia have deepened, with Saudi Aramco reportedly investing in Indian behemoth Reliance Industries. It is also being reported that Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund (PIF) has initiated discussions with Reliance Industries on investing about $1 billion in Jio’s fiber assets.
With the world focusing its attention on the renewable sources of energy and the slackening demand for the crude oil, the notion of fostering profitable trading relations with an emerging regional power such as India and investing in futuristic technologies build by Indian companies is more lucrative for the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, than continuing to align with the cash-strapped Pakistan, which is on the brink of an unsalvageable financial crisis and risk disrupting its favourable trade ties with India.
With the coronavirus pandemic wrecking serious economic damage, and with little respite expected in the foreseeable future, countries have discerned that the glue of shared economic interests has a greater likelihood of weathering them through this economic turmoil than the fixation with the commonality of the religion. It is, perhaps, this sobering realisation that has caused Saudi Arabia to tacitly ask its former ally Pakistan to get over its obsession with Jammu and Kashmir, the territory which Pakistan characterises as its “jugular vein”, and reconcile to its changed identity.