Crown prince’s visit sets future direction of Pakistan-Saudi ties
Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia, unlike many of its other relationships within the region and beyond, have gradually consolidated, broadened and deepened. No observer of diplomacy and regional and international relations can escape three strong impressions set by these ties.
Firstly, the relationship is strategic in nature, with consistent growth in cooperation on military issues, which reflects a common understanding of the threats, challenges and responses to them.
Pakistan has played a greater role than any other regional ally of Saudi Arabia in bolstering its defenses. It started with Pakistan offering training assistance to Saudi troops. Since Pakistan had a modern defense infrastructure, reputed training institutes, and one of the largest and most experienced armed forces, it was in a position to assist Saudi Arabia in building its armed forces in the 1970s, and even prior to that.
Pakistan opened its military academies for every branch of the fledgling Saudi air force, navy and the ground forces. In the formative years of these institutions in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s contribution was quite significant and widely acknowledged.
Pakistan always supported Saudi Arabia whenever it has faced threats to its national security and deployed its forces in the Kingdom too. In the 1980s, and during the first Gulf War (1990-91), Pakistan deployed 15,000 troops.
It also had special forces to protect vital security installations. More recently, it sent a contingent to the southern borders of the Kingdom to counter attacks from the Houthis operating from Yemen.
Today, just as they did in the past, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stand together in facing the challenges to their national security that are posed by transnational terrorism, insurgencies and foreign adversaries. In many ways, they contribute toward bolstering each other’s defense mechanisms, ranging from intelligence cooperation to shaping common responses to threats faced. The second important aspect of the relationship is that, despite difficult times and even in the face of divergent views on regional security issues, ties haven’t been ruptured or witnessed any serious disruptions.
Rather, the two countries have demonstrated a sense of empathy and acknowledgment of each other’s vulnerabilities if either of the two were unable to rise to expectations.
A case in point is Pakistan’s inability to deploy its forces and join the Arab coalition to fight in Yemen. Additionally, Saudi Arabia didn’t make it an issue when Pakistan’s new government — under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan — approached Riyadh for financial assistance in order to stabilize its economy. Rather, Pakistan once again saw the Kingdom rise to the occasion by pledging to extend a generous $6 billion to avert its balance of payment crisis: A major breakthrough that helped address Pakistan’s economic vulnerabilities.
Today, just as they did in the past, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stand together in facing the challenges to their national security that are posed by transnational terrorism, insurgencies and foreign adversaries.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit is expected to garner massive Saudi investments in several critical sectors of Pakistan’s fragile economy. The establishment of an oil refinery at the Gwadar Port and Saudi Arabia’s participation in planned economic zones along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are some of the initiatives in the pipeline. It has been a time of crucial change in both of the countries.
Saudi Arabia has begun to transform itself in light of its Vision 2030 strategy — one which the crown prince hopes will create new avenues to restructure the economy and reduce its dependence on oil. On the other hand, following its remarkable success in defeating terrorism, Pakistan is seeking economic stability and modernization, which coincides with the Saudi vision.
Lastly, both countries enjoy a symbiotic relationship by supporting each other’s mutual needs. Pakistan’s professionals and its labor force — which stands at nearly 1.9 million — have played a pivotal role in the development of various sectors of the Kingdom. In return, the remittances sent by overseas Pakistanis have made tremendous contributions to Pakistan’s economy.
Cumulatively, Pakistani workers remit $5 billion annually, which is among the largest of any nation. These are testing times for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, even if they are in different regional and strategic contexts.
Keeping that in mind, the crown prince’s visit will serve as the ideal platform to analyze which direction the ties between the two countries could take in the future. One can gauge this from the range of agreements, investment plans, and facilitation of trade between the two nations.
• Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais