A Rising Security Partnership
Over time, the relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has evolved into a multi-dimensional engagement that has not only translated into aligned foreign policy, but also a collaboration of security and economics, bringing Pakistan’s military into the forefront of this bilateral association.
The history of bilateral cooperation in the defense sector between the two countries is more than 50 years old. Since Pakistan’s independence from colonial rule in 1947, they have kept close political ties which gradually morphed into Pakistan assisting Saudi Arabia in military training. But the formalization of this partnership took place only in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the former Saudi crown prince and then minister of defense Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz visited Pakistan. The visit led to the signing of a defense agreement that officiated the role of Pakistan’s military trainers. These men acted not only as instructors to Saudi cadets, but also played a key role in building up Saudi defense institutions.
The partnership further strengthened in the 80’s, due to the personal bond between Saudi leadership and Pakistan’s then President General Zia-ul-haq as well as geopolitical events that included the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both sides reached an agreement regarding the regularized deployment of Pakistan’s military. Over the course of the Iran-Iraq war, approximately 15,000 Pakistani troops remained in Saudi Arabia. The Afghan war proved to be a key arena of military intelligence sharing between the two sides and opened up a new channel of communication and pathways of strategic understanding between the two countries.
Today, the three components of the armed forces on both sides collaborate with each other in a plethora of fields ranging from policy level coordination to operations on ground.
As a training hub for Saudi military cadets, Pakistan’s involvement has only increased over time.
As a training hub for Saudi military cadets, Pakistan’s involvement has only increased over time. Just last year, a batch of 46 Saudi cadets graduated from the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. Alongside large-scale military exercises, Saudi Arabia has been one of Pakistan’s largest arms importers, and in 2016, received an order of arms worth $81 million from Saudi Arabia, though it is a largely insignificant figure keeping in mind the over-all scale of Saudi arms imports.
Perhaps the most important vector in the bilateral security relationship is the longstanding Pakistani military presence inside Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s military has kept a composite force of approximately 1600 military personnel in Saudi Arabia and last year, decided to send another contingent of over 1000 troops on a training and advice mission. This makes Pakistan the country with the largest number of troops within Saudi Arabia and one comprehensively embedded in Saudi security environs.
The appointment of Pakistan’s former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, as head of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition makes evident Saudi Arabia’s trust in Pakistan’s military leadership. Similarly, his successor General Bajwa has been instrumental in initiating the new paradigm in the bilateral ties witnessed during the Saudi Crown prince’s recent visit to Pakistan.
Defense and security cooperation between the two sides remains a field where institutional interests have been pursued to achieve national strategic objectives instead of personal goals. This has created a regional partnership addressing changing political and security challenges, but one that also impacts inter-regional alignment patterns in ways that will arguably reveal even greater influence and meaning as time goes by.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, the conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.