Today’s multifaceted Pakistan-Saudi defense cooperation is built on longstanding trust

Today’s multifaceted Pakistan-Saudi defense cooperation is built on longstanding trust

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Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have maintained an aligned outlook on regional, political and security order for more than the last five decades. Both countries developed a strong strategic partnership during the Afghan war in the 1980s and have since remained close defense partners. The bilateral security cooperation between the two sides has evolved over time and become multifaceted.
Pakistan and Saudi defense cooperation has remained a feature of the bilateral relationship right from the independence of Pakistan. Both countries entered a formal security cooperation arrangement when in 1967 the then Saudi Minister of Defense Prince Sultan visited Pakistan and signed a security pact with the country. This led to the dispatch of Pakistani military and air force officers to the Kingdom.
Bilateral defense cooperation reached a new level after the Soviet invasion of 1979 as both states became strategic allies. As the military was back in power in Pakistan, the difference between political and security policymaking was negligible. Furthermore, the close personal ties between the Pakistani president and military dictator General Zia-ul-haq and Saudi royalty accelerated bilateral defense ties. In the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, the regional security picture had become even more vulnerable. This resulted in the signing of a new defense protocol by the two sides in 1982. Under the auspices of this agreement, Pakistan deployed a division strong contingent of troops to Saudi Arabia which remained there till 1987. Since then Pakistan’s troops have been deployed within Saudi Arabia from time to time.

Within the Pakistan Army’s training programs, Saudi troops are increasingly viewed as an inherent part of the unit fraternity.

Umer Karim

Even thought, by the end of the cold war, the security variable had scaled down, bilateral defense ties nonetheless remained strong. Under the regime of President General Musharraf in Pakistan, the bilateral relationship gradually strengthened and in the defense domain, the focus shifted toward the training of Saudi cadets and joint exercises between the two armed forces.
In this regard, both sides have signed a military cooperation agreement in 2005. As per the record shared within Pakistan’s national assembly from 1967 to 2014, approximately 8,255 Saudi armed forces’ cadets have graduated from the army, air force and naval academies in Pakistan. The training of nearly 10,000 Saudi armed forces officers within Pakistan over five decades speaks to the valuable nature of the relationship the two sides have in the defense domain.
A second plank of this defense cooperation has been characterized by joint exercises conducted by Pakistani and Saudi armed forces. In the military domain, a biennial military exercise between the two militaries has been the Al-Samsaam which started in 2004. The nature of this exercise has evolved over time. Initially it involved joint exercises by mechanized columns of the two armed forces, however the focus has gradually shifted toward joint counter terrorism drills. The special forces of the two militaries have been conducting their own Al-Shehab and Al-Battar exercises which have also seen the involvement of combat aviation. A third and rather recent component of this cooperation has been the Al-Kassah exercise focusing on the handling and defusal of IED devices of various kinds and bringing together the engineering arms of the two forces.
These short exercises are further complemented by the two-month long drills bringing together the mechanized columns of both countries. The Saudi side in this case trains and conducts offensive operations alongside Pakistan’s main strike corps which has been primarily tasked to carry out offensive actions against India. It was interesting that the press release regarding these exercises categorized them as “on job training of Royal Saudi Land Forces” and highlighted that an aim of the exercise was to foster joint employment. This visibly shows that within the Pakistan Army’s training programs, Saudi troops are increasingly viewed as a part of the regimental and unit fraternity and of the drills designed according to the operational doctrines of the force.
This highlights the current multi-faceted nature of these joint exercises and a thorough integration of the different components of the Saudi armed forces into the training and operational regime of the Pakistani armed forces. It also highlights the high degree of trust and inter-operability between the two forces and the unique role played by Pakistan in the capacity enhancement and professional development of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces.

- 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

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