Zardari Visit Affirms Saudi Arabia’s Importance to Islamabad

27 July 2011 FDI Team


The visit of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on 20 July 2011 to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz is indicative of the ongoing close relationship between the two countries. The economic aspect of the relationship is clearly dominated by Pakistan’s significant need for Saudi oil; this weights the bilateral trade relationship heavily in Saudi Arabia's favour. In 2006, Saudi Arabian exports to Pakistan – comprised almost completely of oil – totalled just under US$3 billion. In return, Pakistani exports to Saudi Arabia accounted for just US$330 million, dominated by the clothing and textiles sector. In 2009, Saudi Arabia accounted for over 11 per cent of all imports into Pakistan, making it the second-largest source of imports.


While exports from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia are minimal, the significant role that its migrant workers play in Saudi Arabia is not. The United Nations estimates that Saudi Arabia now plays host to over 900,000 Pakistani workers, who comprise the second-largest group of guest workers in the Gulf nation. According to a recent article in the Khaleej Times, ‘Saudi Arabia and the UAE emerged as the top Gulf nations on the remittance table, as expatriates working in the two countries sent US$5.267 billion in fiscal year 2010-11 back home.’

Beyond the economic ties, Saudi Arabia has been a long-standing foreign aid provider for Pakistan. According to the Brookings Institute, ‘Pakistan has received more aid from Saudi Arabia than any country outside the Arab world since the 1960s‘. In 2010, Saudi Arabia exceeded the United States as the single-largest aid donor in the wake of the Pakistani floods, donating over US$105 million.

But the relationship is not all one-way. It is clear that Saudi Arabia seeks to maintain ties with the Pakistani military and, when necessary, use its significant manpower as a bulwark for its own security. In the past, Pakistan was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Saudi Air Force, even providing pilots in a border war against South Yemen in 1969.  In the 1970s and ‘80s up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the Kingdom. The domestic political environment within the Kingdom makes it difficult for the Saudis to host foreign military, especially non-Muslim, forces on their soil, making the Pakistani military a much more palatable option if the Saudis ever needed to turn to external ground forces for support. Even if the Saudis wanted Western troops, they would face competition from the likes of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which are going out of their way to attract Western defence forces.

Arguably a key mutual strategic and cultural issue that binds the two countries, is the desire to contain Shiite nationalism and, by extension, containment of Iran. Both countries have significant Shiite minorities, and have harboured suspicions of Iranian involvement in their own internal politics. This issue is of acute importance to Saudi Arabia, which recently intervened militarily to support the neighbouring Sunni monarchy in Bahrain against a Shiite-driven popular uprising. It is clear that Saudi Arabia sees Iran and Shiite nationalism as significant threats to its security. This was highlighted in the recent leak of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, in which it was reported that King Abdullah had asked the United States not to rule out military force against Iran, so that it could ‘cut the head off the snake’.

Another shared strategic concern comes from attempts by al-Qaida to destabilise their governments; both the Saudi royal family and the political and military leadership of Pakistan have been targets of the organisation. It was reported by the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayif, that the Kingdom had countered over 180 al-Qaida terrorist operations since 2003. Meanwhile, Pakistan has endured significant numbers of terrorist acts over the last five years, linked to al-Qaida- and Taliban-backed militants.  A recent example of this mutual threat occurred on 16 May, when a Saudi diplomat was shot dead in Karachi. The assassination was preceded by a grenade attack on the Saudi consulate in the city the week before.

It is clear that Saudi-Pakistan relations will remain strong for some time, given the symbiotic relationship. Pakistan obtains significant economic benefits from Saudi Arabia, while the Saudis gain a strategic ally with the potential to access significant military support and provide a counterbalance to Iranian ambitions in the region, which the Kingdom sees as its main threat.

Jahnu Russell

Future Directions International Associate

Indian Ocean Research Programme


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