In March, Saudi warplanes started to take part in Aces Meet 2021, a two-week-long series of military exercises held in Pakistan. An undisclosed number of Saudi Tornado fighter bombers flew alongside US and Pakistani warplanes and practised counter-terrorism techniques, according to reports.[i]
Previously, Pakistan, as is its custom, had issued permits to Muhammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and two other princes to hunt Houbara bustards – think large, ground-nesting birds – in Balochistan and Punjab. The granting of these permits is a perennial in Arab states’ relations with Pakistan.[ii] Houbara bustards are protected under international protocols and Pakistani law – Pakistanis are not allowed to kill them – but their meat has alleged aphrodisiac properties.[iii] Saudi and other Gulf Arab aristocrats adore hunting them.
So far, so normal. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had one of the most important but unheralded relationships in the Muslim world. At least 2 million Pakistanis live and work in the Kingdom. The funds they send back to family – $690 million in March 2021 alone – are crucial to Pakistan. In 1977, Pakistan renamed Lyallpur, its third largest city, Faisalabad in honour of the Saudi king who funded a huge mosque in the capital city of Islamabad. The alliance deepened in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan of the 1980s as Riyadh supplied funds and advanced weaponry while Islamabad provided manpower and expertise in the successful efforts to expel the Russians. Pakistanis have long served in Gulf Arab militaries and provided technical support. During the first Gulf War, Pakistan deployed 13,000 troops and 6,000 advisers to Saudi Arabia.[iv] A squad of Pakistani soldiers is thought to have secured the perimeter of the Great Mosque in Mecca after it was seized by millenarian Islamist militants in 1979. The list goes on.
There are now signs, however, that the relationship is undergoing serious change, catalysed by MBS’s accession as crown prince. Where once the relationship was characterised by infusions of cash and oil supplies delivered de haut en bas by members of the Saudi royal family, that aid is coming with more conditionality and demands that Pakistan side with the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, its closest Arab ally, against Turkey and Qatar.
The pressure is pushing Pakistan further into the arms of China. In March, Abdul Aziz Hamad al-Jumaih, a leading Saudi businessman, pressed Pakistani officials for settlement of receivables in connection with the sale of shares in Karachi Electric Supply Corporation, a major utility in Pakistan’s largest city and commercial capital, to Shanghai Electric, a Chinese company.[v] Jumaih’s investment in Karachi had not previously been publicised and seems to have been channelled through Arif Naqvi, a now disgraced Pakistani private equity investor who was based in the UAE. Symbolically, as Mr al-Jumaih was making his calls, a Chinese-built nuclear power plant in Karachi came online.[vi]
In December last year, Pakistan said that it was returning $1bn in soft loans extended by Riyadh early.[vii] Saudi Arabia had extended the balance of payments loan and credits for energy imports in order to help out the perennially overstretched Pakistani economy. Riyadh asked that the loan be repaid after facing persistent calls from the Pakistani side to support its stance over Kashmir. Saudi Arabia seems to have refused out of consideration for relations with India.[viii] In 2019, MBS announced that the Kingdom would invest a massive $100 billion in India in petrochemicals, refining, and other sectors. Pakistan instead applied for and received financial support from China.
The souring of relations goes back to Islamabad’s refusal in 2015 to participate in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, as conceived by MBS.[ix] The Pakistani army has expertise in fighting in inhospitable mountain terrain, which Saudi Arabia lacks, but the Pakistani parliament vetoed direct participation in combat operations on the grounds that it did not want to become involved in an overseas civil war. Saudi Arabia had trumpeted a Muslim alliance to fight terrorism, in reality the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and may have included Pakistan in the coalition without first asking Islamabad. Pakistan subsequently sent a training and advisory mission under Raheel Sharif, a former chief of staff, but has steadfastly refused to commit combat troops.
For its part, Pakistan has taken umbrage at a Saudi refusal to sponsor a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to look into the Kashmir question, which is existential to Pakistan. The conflict is used as a justification for large amounts of military spending while granting the generals a permanent seat at the top political table. In 2019, India removed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the part of the territory that it controls, by revoking article 370 of its constitution and transformed the area into a federal state.[x] Pakistan takes this shift as bringing Kashmir more closely under the control of New Delhi and has demanded that the Islamic world back it.
In August last year, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly warned Saudi Arabia over its reticence over the change in status of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
“Today Pakistanis, who are always ready to sacrifice their lives for Mecca and Madina, need Saudi to play a leading role on the Kashmir issue. If they will not play their role, then I will ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia,” Qureshi warned, referring to organising a meeting of OIC foreign ministers.
Comments of such stringency by a Pakistani official are unprecedented and point to the depth of the fissure between the two formerly close allies. Qureshi was not reprimanded nor were his comments rescinded.
This is probably because behind the scenes (and sometimes in front) Pakistan has been involved in a diplomatic tug of war. In 2019, Qatar, Iran and Turkey sponsored Malaysia to convene an Islamic summit to compete with the Saudi-dominated OIC which has its headquarters in Jeddah.[xi] The government, led by Khan and Qureshi, decided late in the day to stay at home and not take part in the inaugural meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Pakistan would dearly like to have attended but declined at the not-so-subtle instigation of Saudi Arabia.[xii]
Aside from Yemen and Kashmir, there are other hefty considerations in this changing relationship. In the first place, Pakistan has the only Islamic nuclear bomb. In 1998, when Pakistan successfully tested a viable nuclear weapon, Riyadh publicly supported Islamabad diplomatically and with free oil supplies as it entered a period of international isolation which only ended with the 9/11 attacks against the US. Until the recent souring of relations it had previously been thought that Pakistan could send teams with nuclear missiles to Saudi Arabia or elements of the weapons themselves if Riyadh requested it. Saudi Arabia is known to have bought CSS-2 missiles from China, now an old design but one which is nonetheless capable of delivering a nuclear payload. It may be that Pakistan can insert nuclear warheads into the Saudi CSS-2s.[xiii]
As Iran heightens its enrichment of fissile nuclear materials and zealously refuses to give up on its advanced missile development, such an insurance policy may have come into its own. Instead, Saudi Arabia may be looking to Israel as a strategic partner against Iran. The UAE, Riyadh’s close ally, certainly seems to have made that choice.[xiv]
In the second place is the question of state sponsorship of terrorism. Pakistan hosts militant groups focused on India but also possibly on European targets.[xv] The most well-known of these is Lashkar-e-Taiba, a vicious Islamist terrorist group responsible among other atrocities for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai and the 2011 assault on the Indian parliament.[xvi] On the European side, the career of Rashid Rauf, a British born al-Qa’ida organiser and member of Jaish-e-Muhammed, another extremist group with ties to the ISI, was connected to the 7/7 bombings in the United Kingdom and the 2006 transatlantic airline plot. In 2007 Rauf escaped from Pakistani custody in usefully deniable but highly suspicious circumstances.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the sponsorship of terrorism is more opaque. Saudi money is known to have funded radical madrasas in Pakistan and fundamentalist groups such as Ahl-e-Hadith and the Deobandis. Moreover it backed Pakistan when that country was all but an outcast because of its nuclear programme and its sponsorship of extremist groups. President Barack Obama, for one, in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic magazine delivered towards the end of his presidency which may be viewed as an unvarnished statement of intentions and conclusions, allowed himself to be quoted as questioning “privately” why Pakistan and Saudi Arabia should be considered as US allies.[xvii] The new Biden administration is packed with Obama-era foreign policy experts.
So it is that Saudi Arabia seems to be reconsidering its relationship with militant Islam. Under MBS, the previously highly chauvinistic and discriminatory school curriculum has been reformed and the Muslim World League, one of the primary vehicles for the propagation of Wahhabism, has dramatically changed its world view under a new secretary general. Other elements of the machinery of Wahhabism remain in place but the direction of travel is clear. Where does this leave Pakistan and where does this leave militant Islamism? It seems as though jettisoning the previously close relationship with Pakistan is being included in the reform process. Bustard hunting licences are still being sought and military exercises are being conducted but debts are being enforced and commercial relationships ended. This in turn that is forcing Pakistan, or the more hardline elements within its army and intelligence establishment, to build other diplomatic relationships notably with China and to be more conciliatory elsewhere.
It is notable that Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistani chief of staff, has said publicly that it is time “to bury the past” over Kashmir. Such statements have been made before by Pakistani leaders but usually by civilians such as Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and himself a close Saudi ally, who are keen to develop economic relationships.[xviii] The army acts as the guardian of the country’s national identity and, via its intelligence service ISI, the main sponsor of the likes of Lashkar e-Taiba. So General Bajwa’s comments are important. India and Pakistan are also said to have held secret talks to lower tensions over Kashmir in Dubai and in February – notably after the inauguration of the Biden administration – agreed to a ceasefire on the line of control.[xix] It is possible however that Saudi Arabia, which has enormous prestige in Pakistan, is also putting pressure on the army to come to terms. If anyone knows the depth of Pakistani involvement in terrorism near and abroad it is Saudi Arabia.
As for the wider diplomatic relationship, one place to watch is a massive refinery project mooted for the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea near the Straits of Hormuz. The deepwater port itself, currently under construction, forms one of the end points of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and is a critical part of the China-Pakistan economic corridor.[xx][xxi] In 2019, Saudi Arabia inserted itself into Gwadar and into the burgeoning relationship between China and Pakistan by agreeing to construct a large scale oil refinery.[xxii] Pakistan is energy-poor and a refinery on this scale would go some way to lowering energy import bills as well as cementing ties. However, two years on from the announcement, ground breaking on the refinery, which is in any case relatively small in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s commitments to India, has not begun.
Unlike refineries, military exercises – and permits for bustard hunting – are highly symbolic and relatively cheap. The participation of the Saudi air force in Aces Meet 2021 looks like an attempt to rescue a markedly deteriorating relationship. On the ground, many more birds will have to die before relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are what they once were.
[i] Saudi airforce begins joint exercise. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1834846/saudi-arabia
[ii] Crown prince, two other princes issued permits for hunting houbara bustards. https://www.dawn.com/news/1593505
[iii] Hunting rare birds in Pakistan to feed the sex drive of princes. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-56419597
[iv] Pak-Gulf Defense and Security Cooperation, p6. http://cpakgulf.org/documents/Pak-Gulf-Security-Ties-final.pdf
[v] Pakistan returns $1 billion of Saudi Arabia’s soft loan, officials say. https://www.dawn.com/news/1596109
[vi] Envoy: $100bn investment in India is on track. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1781826/business-economy
[vii] Saudi tycoon in Pakistan to end impasse over KE sale. https://www.dawn.com/news/1612770
[viii] Pakistan’s China-built nuclear power reactor starts operation https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/pakistans-china-built-nuclear-reactor-starts-operation
[ix] Pakistan’s parliament votes against entering Yemen conflict. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/10/pakistans-parliament-votes-against-entering-yemen-conflict
[x] India strips Kashmir of special status and divides it in two. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/31/india-strips-kashmir-of-special-status-and-divides-it-in-two
[xi] Saudi Arabia, Pakistan snub Malaysia summit. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-muslimalliance-idUSKBN1YM0G3
[xii] Erdogan says Saudi ‘put pressure’ on Pakistan to withdraw from Malaysia summit. https://www.dawn.com/news/1523364
[xiii] Saudi nuclear weapons ‘on order’ from Pakistan. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24823846
[xiv] UAE, Israel ministers pledge defence cooperation. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-emirates-defence-idUSKBN25L1XP
[xv] Rashid Rauf training dozens of British terrorism recruits in Pakistan. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/6184087/Rashid-Rauf-training-dozens-of-British-terrorist-recruits-in-Pakistan.html
[xvi] Hafiz Muhammad Saeed: United Nations Security Council. https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267/aq_sanctions_list/summaries/individual/hafiz-muhammad-saeed
[xvii] Saudi Arabia’s hold on Pakistan. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/FP_20190510_saudi_pakistan_afzal.pdf
[xviii] The Obama Doctrine. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/
[xix] ‘Time to bury the past’, Pakistan army chief tells India. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1827846/world
[xx] Pakistani, Indian officials held talks in Dubai over Kashmir. https://www.dawn.com/news/1618328
[xxi] China Pakistan Economic Corridor. http://cpec.gov.pk/
[xxii] Pakistan hands management of strategic Gwadar port to China. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1153524/pakistan-hands-management-strategic-gwadar-port-china