The Saudi-Pakistani Relationship: Riyadh Turns the Screw

26 August 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

A recently-published FDI paper that examined some of the implications of the Israeli-UAE détente noted that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Mr Shah Mehmood Qureshi, took a hard line against Saudi Arabia when he felt that Riyadh had failed to comply with his request to convene a Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation countries. Mr Qureshi wanted the Council to discuss India’s abrogation of Article 370 of its Constitution, which ended some of the special privileges that its Muslim-majority state of Kashmir enjoyed. Riyadh was not impressed when he stated:

I am once again respectfully telling OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. If you cannot convene it, then I’ll 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.

It was his threat 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” that likely angered the Saudis most. The not-very-veiled threat was a reference to Turkey and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seeks to create a neo-Ottoman Empire and to replace the Saudis as the leader of the worldwide Islamic community. As a sign of its displeasure, Saudi Arabia halted its oil shipments to Pakistan and asked Islamabad to repay the short-term loans Riyadh had provided.

The deterioration in the relationship led to the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visiting Saudi Arabia. The incongruity of its army directing its foreign policy aside, that being the usual state of affairs in Pakistan, General Bajwa is highly respected in Saudi Arabia and usually welcomed, which attributes make him the ideal Pakistani envoy to Riyadh to patch up the relationship. It is, perhaps, a sign of the depth of Saudi anger against Pakistan that General Bajwa and the chief of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, General Faiz Hameed, were unable to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Comment

Any Pakistani hope that Saudi anger would dissipate in time must surely have been dashed by an article written by Dr Ali Awadh Asseri, a senior Saudi diplomat who served as Ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2009. Dr Asseri opens his carefully-crafted article by decrying the efforts of those in the Pakistani and “foreign” media who “aim to sabotage the historic partnership between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan” and adds that the:

… 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.

Having established Riyadh’s bona fides vis-à-vis Pakistan, Dr Asseri then describes how that “worrisome” situation has come about, pointing directly to the “damaging reports [that] draw upon the remarks made by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister” and the latter’s threat to “call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir”. He proceeds to remind Pakistan of Saudi Arabia’s largesse, although he couches that reminder in terms of the “Saudi-Pak co-operation in political, security and economic spheres”. He reminds Pakistan that it was Saudi Arabia that provided it with a relief package of US$6.2 billion ($8.6 billion) in November 2018 to prevent it from defaulting on its debt repayments and a further US$20 billion ($27.9 billion) in February 2019. To demonstrate that the relationship was not one-sided, Dr Asseri reminds Pakistan of the military assistance that it had provided to Riyadh, Riyadh’s assistance to Pakistani victims of an earthquake and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing efforts to “highlight the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims”.

That done, Dr Asseri approaches the core of his article. He reminds Islamabad that “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 states unequivocally that:

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.

That statement could be perceived as a rebuke to Mr Qureshi – and it certainly is that. On a different level, however, his statement gives Prime Minister Khan the opportunity to mend the bilateral relationship by dismissing his Foreign Minister and blaming him for having caused the rift in the first place. Dr Asseri signals, however, that Pakistan would need to scale back its relationship with Turkey. Pointing out that Saudi Arabia is the site of two of Islam’s holiest shrines, at Mecca and Medina, he states, “… it has always struggled against any effort or instance aimed at dividing the Muslim Ummah [community]”. Referring to Mr Qureshi’s threat to “organize “a meeting of the Islamic countries” on Kashmir without the OIC mandate”, he reminds Islamabad that it:

… 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.

and lambasts those two countries, noting that a move such as Mr Qureshi proposes

… 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.

Not content with that general statement, he notes vigorously that:

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

and that,

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.

The signals could hardly be clearer. Dr Asseri has given Pakistan a choice of two options. It could return to its good standing in Saudi Arabia by renouncing its growing ties to Iran and Turkey by using the excuse of a Foreign Minister who had strayed beyond his remit or it could continue to develop its ties with Iran and Turkey and risk losing its access to Saudi funds and oil. That is a stark choice and not one that Pakistan would wish to make. Dr Asseri’s article leaves Pakistan with no option, however, but to choose between two future courses of action. The outcome will be interesting to watch.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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