Saudi-Pak relationship is not an exchange, it is a bond
One of the principal challenges in explaining the strategic bond between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is generational. For decades, Pakistani and Saudi authorities have enjoyed the comfort of a cellular level of intimacy. It is easy to become complacent when two countries are as deeply interconnected as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are.
Over the last decade-and-a-half, both countries have endured unprecedented challenges. A massive demographic shift has taken place in both countries simultaneously. Few nations have, in the digital age, attempted the kind of dramatic social reforms that are being undertaken in Riyadh today. Few countries have endured the kind of relentless campaign of terrorism that Pakistan has, and fewer still have fought back as boldly and effectively. Today, the language of change and reform dominates public discourse in both countries.
Most bilateral relations require a crification of interests and a definition of what is gained or lost by investing in ties. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have never needed this. Statements of intent or memorandums of understanding cannot capture what makes the Saudi-Pak relationship intergenerational, strategic, and thus not subject to the ebbs and flows or the ups and downs of ordinary state-to-state relations.
Elder statesmen in Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan never needed a reassertion of the Pakistani-Saudi bond, and thus did not bequeath any manual for how and why the mutual trust and warmth between the countries was so important. As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Pakistan, some are describing it as a historic landmark in the relationship. It is historic indeed — but it is important to understand why.
Many, particularly in the West, seek to understand the historic nature of the visit based on a dollar value of aid or investment that accompanies the crown prince. This is a limitation of having a transactional lens. In exchange for the aid and investment flowing from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, the same analysts seek to decipher what measure of military muscle Pakistan will lend to Saudi Arabia. This too is an erroneous framing. The relationship is not an exchange, it is a bond. Period.
To understand this bond, one has to begin with what Riyadh represents to most Pakistanis. A good place to start is the official title of the ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Pakistanis don’t measure Saudi Arabia with the crude metrics that others do. In fact, Pakistanis do not measure Saudi Arabia at all. There can be no measure of Makkah and Madinah, and what the two holy cities represent. As the House of Saud cares for, protects and maintains the two holy mosques, Pakistan protects the House of Saud. This is a permanent and enduring reality — it is strategic, for those that need the assurance of that word. It is tactical and operational too for those that question its scope and scale. Constant, permanent and as close to unlimited as terrestrial things can be: Pakistan, its people and its resources stand on guard for the two Holy Mosques and their custodian.
Most bilateral relations require clarification of interests and a definition of what is gained or lost by investing in ties. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have never needed this.
The spiritual and religious bond is the starting point. Take a look at Saudi Arabia today. Government systems, health care, businesses, charities, roads, bridges, buildings, industry, universities, and research. Try to imagine a sector in Saudi Arabia in which Pakistanis have not participated in large numbers. They are bricklayers, accountants, lawyers, pilots, doctors, drivers, teachers, sanitation workers, and engineers. They are skilled and unskilled; Pashtun, MuHajjir, Punjabi, Baloch and Sindhi; Shiite and Sunni. There is no brand of Pakistani that has not helped to build every aspect of Saudi Arabia.
How much is sent in remittances from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan? How many Pakistani soldiers serve in close personal protection services in the Kingdom? How much will Saudi Aramco invest in Pakistan? Of course, these dynamics help inform the modern Saudi relationship with Pakistan. But these questions and their answers have populated and informed previous Saudi delegations to Pakistan too. What makes the current visit by MBS to Pakista historic is not the quantum of money or people that will fly between Riyadh and Islamabad as a result. What makes this visit historic is that it is an opportunity for a generational renewal of a permanent bond.
As Saudi Arabia embarks on a massive and wide-ranging modernization of state and society, it faces incredible pressures — at home and abroad.
Geopolitics in the Gulf region ensures the historic competition between Arab and Persian civilizations. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, this contest has been framed in sectarian terms. Pakistan represents a unique amalgam of Arab, Persian and Hindu tradition, and incredible syncretism of Shiite and Sunni. Pakistan is what I like to call the world’s only Hussaini nation. With the right leadership, no country is better placed to serve as a bridge of understanding and connectivity.
— Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist and policy analyst. He works for the policy think tank, Tabadlab.