Recent visits by senior officials of the two countries have given rise to speculation that something major is in the offing. Will the two sides’ expectations be met or one side will use the other?
Measured by any standard, the number of visits by senior Saudi and Pakistani officials to each other’s country in the last two months has been breathtaking. While relations between the two were always warm, what accounts for this new-found love? It is not enough to quote Prince al-Waleed bin Talal’s statement in the Wall Street Journal that “Nawaz Sharif is Saudi Arabia’s man in Pakistan” to explain the flurry of visits. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes even if Sharif is close to the House of Saud.
Both sides have their own wish list of expectations. The February 17 communiqué issued at the end of Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s three-day visit gave a clue to what the Saudis are after. Defence and security issues top their agenda as does Syria. From the communiqué it was clear that Pakistan has abandoned its neutral stand vis-à-vis Syria and has moved closer to the Saudi position. Under the rubric of a transitional government in Syria that would have real powers, the Saudis want to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Asad. What authority do they have to decide who should rule in another country? If Pakistan has signed on to this policy, it would have serious repercussions for the country.
For its part, Pakistan is looking for substantial investment in its infrastructure as well as the energy sector. Hitherto, the bulk of Saudi investments have been in the US, estimated by the World Bank to be $1 trillion. Other favored destinations are Southeast Asia and Turkey. Pakistan has been given the cold shoulder. Will this change after the recent visits?
Given the Saudis’ grave concern about security especially in view of the US refusal to attack Syria as Riyadh had wanted, the Saudis are looking for alternative allies for defence. Two decades ago, then Saudi ambassador to Washington, Bandar bin Sultan likened US-Saudi relations to a Catholic marriage. He said there may be ups and downs but the two are stuck with each other. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal differed with this metaphor; he likened it to a Muslim marriage in which the man is allowed to take on four wives (His grandfather, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud had 23 wives!).
What al-Faisal meant was that Saudi Arabia would seek other partners besides the US. This is what has happened recently. China and France have been approached for weapons. They are also banking on Pakistan, but for manpower — primarily Pakistani troops for internal security — rather than weapon systems. Training of Saudi troops is also being discussed, hence the several meetings with Pakistan’s military chiefs.
It would help to review the various visits that preceded the arrival of Crown Prince Salman on February 15. It started with the two-day visit on January 6 of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Islamabad. He met the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz as well as Nawaz Sharif himself, almost certainly in preparation for Saudi Crown Prince Salman’s visit.
A few days later, Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan accompanied by a large entourage of defence officials arrived in Islamabad. He held detailed discussions with Pakistani political and defence officials leading to speculation that the Saudis wanted Pakistani military hardware as well as troops. While no agreements were signed in January, Salman bin Sultan made an unprecedented return visit last month. Did he go to Riyadh to confer with his superiors, like Crown Prince Salman who is also the kingdom’s defence minister?
The Saudi deputy defence minister’s return visit was preceded by a three-day official visit to the kingdom by Pakistani army chief, General Raheel Sharif. During the February 5–8 visit, General Sharif met his Saudi counterparts — Chief of General Staff Royal Saudi Armed Forces General Hussain bin ‘Abdullah al-Qubayyal and Commander Royal Saudi Land Forces Lieutenant General Eid bin Awadh al-Shalwi — as well as King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman. The latter conferred on the Pakistan army chief the King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Medal of Excellence.
General Sharif also met Deputy Interior Minister ‘Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Ali al-Rubaian. While meeting heads of the armed forces is natural, conferring with the deputy interior minister indicates the Saudis want Pakistan’s support in the crucial area of internal security where the regime feels quite vulnerable.
It has not been revealed as to what form this might take but reports in Saudi and Pakistani media indicate meetings focused on defence and security cooperation, regional stability and steps toward strengthening bonds between the two countries. There was also talk of a “new era in strategic partnership” between the two.
Since Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) won last May’s general election making him prime minister for the third time, relations with Saudi Arabia have deepened. Almost immediately after Sharif’s victory, the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibrahim Saleh al-Ghadeer announced the Kingdom would give Pakistan $15 billion to purchase oil and gas on concessional terms. Some observers saw this as an attempt to scuttle the Iran-Pakistan pipeline deal. Subsequent developments have added weight to this argument.
The Saudis’ primary concern — a self-inflicted wound because they have sent terrorists to Syria that will return in due course to cause havoc in the Kingdom in the manner of al-Qaeda — is to protect the regime. While this is understandable from the Saudis’ point of view, should Pakistan be renting its troops for such work? Is the defence of the Saudi regime and the overthrow of the Asad government in Syria part of Pakistan’s responsibility?
Islamabad should resist the Saudis’ demand to train terrorists for Syria and to get involved in Saudi Arabia’s fight with Iran. Both are fraught with grave dangers and Islamabad would be well advised to resist such misadventures. It should keep in mind the price it is already paying for flirting with the Taliban and what it has led to in Pakistan.