New relationships are being forged within Pakistan – and between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These relationships and their importance were captured in a single, during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s February visit to Pakistan.
As the world looked on, three men appeared to move in harmony. To the left of Salman was Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, while to the right was the head of Pakistan’s army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The three men were smiling and marching in step, surrounded by the trappings of Islamabad’s military pomp and ceremony.
For the first time in many years, Pakistan’s government and military leaders see each other as equals worthy of cooperation. In the past, they have often been at loggerheads.
It is a relationship that brings a degree of stability to Pakistan, even during and .
This new, more united Pakistan seeks to project itself through a revitalised foreign policy – one that can put troops and a diplomatic presence in the Gulf, while flow back into Pakistan and offer relief from the straitjacket of the troubled economy.
The new understanding established between Imran Khan and General Bajwa is a revolution in the state of the civil-military relationship in Pakistan.
Historically, the Pakistani-Saudi relationship has largely been a personal affair between the leaders on both sides, taking on a strategic dynamic through security cooperation.
This helped to ensure that the Pakistani military was an essential element in the Islamabad government’s regional manoeuvres. But since the ousting of , the relationship has been unsettled. It fractured further in 2015, when Pakistan’s a Saudi request for troops to take part in its intervention in Yemen’s civil war – the Pakistani military had wanted to take a more diplomatic approach.
While the Saudis remained suspicious of Pakistan’s civilian leadership, the military made its own moves to repair the relationship.
It assured the Saudis over Pakistan’s security commitments to the Kingdom and projected Pakistan as a strategic link between the Middle East and South Asia. This was a way to counter Islamabad’s isolation in the international arena and attract economic and political benefits from the Gulf. A strong relationship with Riyadh was also a means of balancing the power of Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, and preventing India from gaining the upper hand in the Middle East.
To this end, in 2017, Pakistan joined the Saudi-led , which brings together the militaries of 41 Islamic countries to counter terrorist groups and their activities in the Muslim world. Pakistan’s retiring chief army general, Raheel Sharif, was appointed its commander-in-chief.
Pakistan’s 2016 participation in the with Saudi Arabia and its allies as well as joint exercises between the special forces of both countries had already revealed an increased level of cooperation between the two countries. Islamabad cemented the reconciliation with the dispatch of more than 1,000 troops to the Kingdom, in addition to the 1,600 already deployed on a training and advice mission – making Pakistan the only country with a significant foreign force within Saudi Arabia.
Still, without strong ties between Pakistan’s military and the government in Islamabad, the repaired relationship was limited. The Saudis were not willing to make a without the assurance of a prime minister who would fully support the bilateral initiative.
But then, last August, of Pakistan. And MBS, facing his own international tensions after the murder of journalist , soon travelled to Islamabad with a promise of .
The bolstered political-military axis within Pakistan, the much improved relationship with Saudi Arabia and the investment that has come with it, have helped ease a Pakistan still shaking from the turmoil and corruption of the past decade.
But Islamabad must also negotiate the wider geopolitical terrain. Renewed Saudi-Pakistan ties have not been well received in Iran, Pakistan’s neighbour and Saudi’s arch-rival in the Middle East. And this unease was compounded when 27 Iranian Revolutionary Guards personnel near the Pakistan border, just days before the crown prince arrived in Islamabad.
The attack was carried out by Baluch insurgents, “Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which carry out these acts on orders from the US and the Zionist regime”. It then turned to Islamabad: “If Pakistan does not punish [the insurgents], we will definitely take reparative measures against this counter-revolutionary force in the near future.”
Then there was the escalation of Pakistan’s . On February 26, Indian warplanes allegedly bombed Pakistan in retaliation for an attack by insurgents that killed 40 Indian personnel in the disputed area on February 14. Pakistan downed two Indian jet fighters and captured a pilot.
Khan offered political talks and Islamabad has returned the pilot, but tensions continue and several civilians and soldiers have been killed in ongoing border exchanges.
So, while relations have been repaired within Pakistan and between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, nothing has been resolved in the wider kaleidoscope of regional geopolitics. Khan may have forged a way forward with the Pakistani military, and they may have restored a partnership with the Saudi monarchy – but it remains to be seen how strong these bonds will prove to be if Tehran or Delhi create new instability in the near future.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)
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