Saudi-Pak ties: Perseverance in the face of challenges
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia remain key political and security stakeholders in the respective regional environs of South Asia and the Middle East. Both countries have attained a leading stature in the entire Muslim world. Sitting at critical geopolitical flashpoints, both countries have had a large impact on the political, economic, and security climate of the two regions. Over time, the bilateral relationship has evolved into a multidimensional engagement that has not only translated into an aligned foreign policy outlook but also resulted in collaboration in the security and economic domains.
The mutual partnership finds its origins in the bond of a shared religion and the Saudi leadership’s support for the cause of a separate homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. Since the creation of Pakistan, every Saudi monarch and crown prince has visited Pakistan suggesting the political and strategic importance of the South Asian Muslim nation. From the Pakistani side, it has become a norm of sorts for every head of government, head of state and head of military to visit the Kingdom and engage with its leadership after being sworn into their respective position.
Over the years, this bilateral engagement on issues ranging from geopolitics to regional security has resulted in the formation of formidable connections between Saudi corridors of power and powerbrokers within Pakistan whether from the political fold or the armed forces. This partnership reached its height during the 1980s when Pakistan and Saudi Arabia both supported the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union and its installed puppet regime in Afghanistan. It was the first time multiple facets of both states worked alongside each other for a common cause. The structural linkages developed between Saudi royalty and Pakistan’s military in particular helped to elevate the relationship to a ‘special’ level. Former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki Alfaisal who also handled the Afghanistan File and had worked in tandem with Pakistan’s political, military and intelligence leadership described the bilateral relationship as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries.”
Pakistan’s political stakeholders have a habit of sacrificing the country’s strategic interests and external relationships for the sake of their domestic politics.
With the departure of Soviet Union from Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war between various factions, a critical strategic fulcrum holding both sides together gradually lost its importance. However, the intrapersonal dimension of the bilateral relationship helped in sustaining the closely aligned foreign policy even if both sides started to drift away on some strategic planks.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Saudi leadership has always supported Pakistan in a crisis. As Pakistan faced international sanctions after conducting nuclear tests in 1998, Saudi Arabia came to Pakistan’s rescue with a generous financial package, similar to the Saudi response in the aftermath of the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. Saudi Arabia has also provided Pakistan with financial bail out packages in 2014, 2018, 2021 and currently a new package is under consideration. This shows us that Pakistan has averted debt default on multiple occasions thanks to Saudi financial support. Here it’s pertinent to also account for the financial contribution of Pakistani expats residing in Saudi Arabia in the form of foreign remittances that stretch into billions of dollars annually.
On the political front, over the past few years the Saudi-Pak relationship has gone through a number of transitions due to some divergence in both country’s strategic rationale. Furthermore, the breakdown of the interpersonal bond between the leaderships of both sides under the premiership of Imran Khan led to a bit of a damp patch. However, during every crisis situation, Pakistan’s military and its leadership has acted as a stabilizing force and its interventions have resulted in the restoration of this valuable bilateral relationship.
This also shows that Pakistan’s political stakeholders have a habit of sacrificing the country’s strategic interests and external relationships for the sake of their domestic politics. Such a situation warrants the development of institutional partnerships between the two countries that are no longer dependent upon the personal whims and politics of leaderships but solely driven by strategic and economic interests. In all future engagements between the leaderships of both sides, this should remain the focus of discussion. Unfortunately, Pakistan couldn’t reap any significant dividends from the Saudi Crown Prince’s first state visit to the country in 2018, mainly owing to the incompetence of the then Pakistani government and its subsequent imaginative foreign policy approach. Still both sides did constitute the Saudi Arabia-Pakistan Supreme Coordination (SPSCC), a structural entity that if empowered can preserve and strengthen bilateral ties even at time of political disagreements.
- 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, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89