Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: A partnership too important to fail

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: A partnership too important to fail

The strategic relationship assumed added significance when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid a state visit to Pakistan in 2019. (AFP)
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In recent days, disturbing reports have appeared in Pakistani media and then picked up by foreign media that aim to sabotage the historic partnership between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Their apparent motivation is to create a rift in the Muslim Ummah, by questioning the principled position of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) on Kashmir and linking it with Saudi Arabia’s economic support to Pakistan.

Even more worrisome is the fact that these damaging reports draw upon the remarks made by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, in an interview to a local new channel on August 5.

In that interview, he warned that if the OIC failed to meet Pakistan’s expectation for calling a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, he would be “compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.”

FM Qureshi’s remarks have been followed up by speculative media accounts about Saudi Arabia suspending its emergency economic support to Pakistan. So much so that the OIC and, by implication, founder Saudi Arabia were blamed for not doing enough for the Kashmir cause.

Sadly, no one has yet bothered to seek the Saudi perspective on the two issues, which are neither remotely connected nor are they factually correct. So, a clarification is very much in order to set the record straight.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have always enjoyed an incomparable level of understanding and friendship based on common religious, cultural and social values.

Their unique relations are rooted in the mutual love of the people and, hence, have historically been immune from any changes in government or leadership in the two great nations.

That is why, with each passing decade, the Saudi-Pak cooperation in political, security and economic spheres has grown by leaps and bounds.

In February 2019, the strategic relationship assumed added significance when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid a state visit to Pakistan, where he was graciously driven by Prime Minister Imran Khan from the Islamabad airport to the Prime Minister House.

Their personal chemistry, developed through frequent interactions in the year before, paid its dividends, as the Crown Prince signed on the emergency economic relief package worth $6.2 billion for Pakistan, including $3 billion in loan and $3.2 oil credit facility on annual basis for the next three years, to shore up its foreign exchange reserves and avert a balance-of-payments crisis.

This emergency relief package conformed to a familiar pattern persisting in the past over two decades, whereby Saudi Arabia would provide oil on deferred payments to Pakistan whenever it ran into economic difficulty. However, the economic crisis was much worse this time, as Pakistan faced the risk of defaulting on its foreign debt obligations.

If Foreign Minister Qureshi’s veiled reference is towards another Kuala Lumpur-style gathering, then it is a dangerous proposition that could be least expected from a brotherly country

Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri

Hence, Saudi Arabia was the first to come to its rescue in November 2018 by offering the $6.2 billion relief package. The UAE also joined hands later. This was several months before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved its $6 billion bailout for Pakistan in July 2019.

However, a far more important development during the Crown Prince’s visit was the conclusion of the largest-ever Saudi investment deals worth $20 billion in Pakistan, including an oil refinery in Gwadar worth $10 billion and the remaining investments in petrochemical complex, mining and renewable energy sectors.

It signified that Saudi Arabia was now interested in Pakistan’s long-term economic development, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that ends at the strategic Gwadar port.

It is worth mentioning here that China is the largest importer of Saudi oil, and Saudi Arabia is also diversifying its global economic links through participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and by expanding trade ties with the rest of Asia’s emerging economies.

Thus, while the recent expansion in Saudi-Pak economic cooperation is mutually inclusive and not at cross purposes with the BRI or CPEC, it is also important to state that the two brotherly Muslim nations have always stood shoulder to shoulder with each other in difficult times.

For instance, in 1990, Pakistan sent its ground forces to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Three decades later, Pakistan’s former army chief General Raheel Sharif leads the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, which is comprised of 41 Muslim nations.

From defending the sanctity of Haramain Sharifain to defeating the scourge of terrorism, Pakistan has always been a key Saudi partner and a major Muslim player.

Having served as the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan during the tumultuous period from 2001 to 2009, I vividly remember the gravity of terrorism that both nations faced post-9/11 and how we confronted this menace together in the heyday of the War on Terror.

I maintained close interaction with the civilian and military leadership to ensure Pakistan remains secure and stable. I also remember the fateful days when a devastating earthquake hit the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Saudi Arabia instantly established an air corridor to provide emergency relief to its victims.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have also closely cooperated to achieve the common goals of regional peace and stability in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Thus, out of my personal conviction, on August 5, when Pakistan officially observed Youm-e-Istehsal-e-Kashmir to express solidarity with the suffering Kashmiris, I penned a piece in these columns to highlight the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims and the urgency of resolving the longstanding Kashmir dispute.

However, the very next morning, I was saddened to come across FM Qureshi’s comments on the OIC’s role in Kashmir, which are far from reality. The fact is that the OIC’s Contact Group on Kashmir, led by Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador Yousef M. Aldobeay, had visited the AJK, including the Line of Control, for almost a week in March this year.

The Contact Group subsequently held a virtual meeting in June, inaugurated by OIC Secretary General Dr. Yousef A. Al-Othaimeen, who reiterated the “OIC's commitment to finding a peaceful settlement for the Jammu and Kashmir issue as per the relevant resolutions of the Islamic Summit, the Council of Foreign Ministers, and the international legitimacy.”

Also, deferring to Pakistani sensitivities on Kashmir post-August 5, the statement issued after the Contact Group’s meeting rejected the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Order 2020’ and the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Grant of Domicile Certificate Rules 2020’ aimed at changing the demographic structure of the disputed territory.

It “reaffirmed the OIC’s continued support for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and called on the UN Secretary General to use his good offices to make India abide by the UN Security Council resolutions.”

Such a resolute response to the evolving Kashmir tragedy by the OIC Secretary General and the Contact Group on Kashmir, preceded by its fact-finding mission to the AJK, left little scope for yet another declaration by the Council of Foreign Ministers on Kashmir.

Moreover, the global pandemic had limited the scope of holding major diplomatic gatherings. Yet, FM Qureshi has chosen to tarnish the OIC’s credibility by insisting on the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting.

Let us not allow baseless rhetoric to jeopardize a time-tested relationship or create a rift within the Ummah

A year ago, Pakistan had, indeed, achieved a major success by managing to convene an emergency consultative session of the UN Security Council immediately after India’s annexation of Jammu and Kashmir and imposition of lockdown in the disputed territory.

Unfortunately, since then, the Foreign Ministry under Mr. Qureshi has been unable to build upon this initial success in international diplomacy on Kashmir. So, one plausible explanation for his frustrating bid to blame the OIC is to cover up his own failure in Kashmir.

However, from the Saudi standpoint, FM Qureshi’s threat to organize “a meeting of the Islamic countries” on Kashmir without the OIC mandate is more worrying. Saudi Arabia is the citadel of Islam, for being the location of Islam’s holiest places of worship at Makkah and Madinah. Therefore, it has always struggled against any effort or instance aimed at dividing the Muslim Ummah.

Last December, Pakistan had acted wisely by boycotting one such gathering in Kuala Lumpur, which was an attempt orchestrated primarily by Turkey and Iran to challenge the leadership of the OIC.

If FM Qureshi’s veiled reference is towards any such gathering, then it is a dangerous proposition that could be least expected from a brotherly country whose people, like those of Turkey and Iran, have always craved the unity of Ummah.

Such a step would benefit the current Turkish and Iranian regimes and leaders, who thrive on dividing the Ummah. From Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Libya, their hands are soaked in the blood of suffering Muslim populations. They support terrorist proxies, and have created mess and mayhem in Muslim lands.

For 40 years, Iran has intruded into Arab affairs for heinous ends. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has confirmed in his June report to the Security Council, it is arming the rebellious Houthis in Yemen, and sponsoring their missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Last month, FM Qureshi was himself talking on phone with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud to share Pakistan’s deep concern on the armed attacks against Saudi Arabia. Then, how come he now contemplates an option sponsored by Tehran?

It is quite unfortunate for Turkey that it is led by a megalomaniac neo-Ottoman whose insatiable quest for domestic control and regional hegemony knows no bounds. For almost two decades, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invoked old wounds to upset domestic peace and regional geopolitics. His personal spree for dividing the Islamic world has gained momentum more recently.

Why should Pakistan fall into this trap?

Strategic partnerships between two nation states take years of patient hard work to build. Hence, they are unlikely to founder with the baseless rhetoric of a misguided individual that became the basis of the alleged rift in Saudi-Pak ties. An exemplary spirit of reciprocity characterizes these ties, whereby both Riyadh and Islamabad understand each other’s national sensitivities and limitations.

For this reason, Saudi Arabia did not raise an eyebrow when the Pakistani parliament in 2015 decided not to support its military effort to restore an internationally recognized government in Yemen. The irony in Kashmir’s case is that neither Saudi Arabia nor its Gulf allies intend any ill-will that goes against Pakistani interests or Kashmiri aspirations. Then, how can anyone even think of blaming them for not doing enough on Kashmir?

Even if any differences have emerged over any issue due to some misunder-standing, the standard practice is to resolve them mutually through political and diplomatic channels available to both nations.

Of course, it is a reality that Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in India as part of its growing economic engagement with Asia. India also has as many workers in Saudi Arabia, if not more, as Pakistan does, numbering close to 3 million and contributing billions of dollars in remittances back home.

Does such a deepening economic engagement or interlocking dependence not provide Saudi Arabia with a realistic clout to influence India’s policy for Kashmir peace? Also, has Pakistan itself ever unilaterally given up the bilateral process for Kashmir settlement with India while simultaneously pressing for the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir?

As for the reported issues in Saudi emergency economic relief package for Pakistan, first of all, the media has not verified them from official Saudi sources. Like those of its Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia’s economy has come under severe strain due to the coronavirus pandemic and consequent slide in global oil prices. Both the people and foreign workers are bearing its brunt.

Then, Pakistan, despite the pandemic, does not face the sort of economic crisis it did prior to its economic deal with the IMF. However, even if any differences have emerged over this issue due to some misunderstanding, the standard practice is to resolve them mutually through a multitude or political and diplomatic channels available to both nations.

By bringing such differences into the public domain, as FM Qureshi did through his emotional outburst over OIC’s position on Kashmir or the unverified media reports did on the Saudi economic support to Pakistan, we allow the forces inimical to the interests of both nations to sabotage their historic partnership.

Fortunately, the Saudi-Pak ties are so exceptionally rooted in the deep religious, political and social aspirations of the people that they tend to survive untoward instances such as the current one.

In fact, the level of Saudi-Pak defense cooperation is so deep and wide that the present conspiracy to jeopardize our time-tested ties seems to be fizzling out as quickly as it surfaced on the scene.

Little surprise that on the eve of the current visit of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Riyadh, Major-General Babar Iftikhar, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations, has categorically said: Saudi-Pak “relations are historic, very important, have always been excellent and will remain so. There should be no doubt of this … Nobody should doubt the centrality of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Muslim world. Our hearts beat with the people of Saudi Arabia. So, there is no need to raise any questions on our relations with one another.”

Where does FM Qureshi’s diatribe stand after this? Will PM Imran Khan remind him to be careful in future, as any damage to our brotherly ties goes against our respective national interests and public aspirations?

As Saudi Arabia diversifies its economy away from oil under its Vision 2030, a strategic plan that is the brainchild of our young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, we expect millions of more Pakistanis to contribute to Saudi infrastructure and technological development. The Saudi government has already extended scores of scholarships to educate and train Pakistani youth for this great opportunity.

We have long-term political and economic stakes in Pakistan and are gratified to see greater interaction between the businessmen and traders of the two countries in the past couple of years. Is it not wonderful to note that even amid the current pandemic, Pakistani exports to Saudi Arabia were reported to have increased by 34 percent in June?

Let me conclude by saying that the Saudi-Pak historic partnership is too important to fail. It will blossom in future, just as it did in history, defeating any attempt to sabotage it along the way, with the love and devotion of our two peoples.

 

* Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri is a former senior Saudi diplomat who served as ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan from 2001 to 2009. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Beirut Arab University and has written a book titled “Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror.”

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