Pak-Saudi Ties in Trouble as Army Chief Fails to Meet Crown Prince

Pakistan’s anger over Saudi Arabia’s refusal to commit to the Kashmir issue has not gone down well.

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World
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Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Pakistan PM Imran Khan (R).
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Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia remain in trouble, despite a visit to Riyadh from Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, after he failed to secure a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Citing Pakistani media reports, ANI reported that Bajwa and ISI head General Faiz Hameed arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, but failed to get a meeting with the powerful crown prince, only getting to meet the deputy defence minister, and Saudi military chief of staff.

WHY ARE PAKISTAN-SAUDI RELATIONS IN TROUBLE?

Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been good till as recently as July 2019, when Saudis activated a deferred payment facility in a loan agreement with Pakistan, allowing the latter to pay back the loan of around USD 3 billion at a later date.

However, over the last year, problems had begun to crop up over Saudi Arabia’s perceived lack of support for Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, including at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), where Saudi Arabia is considered the ‘prime mover’.

Ever since the ‘abrogation’ of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, Pakistan has been, as former MEA Secretary Vivek Katju puts it, “disappointed at the lack of Islamic ummah’s high-level or united interest in the constitutional changes... It has been virtually left all alone on this issue.”

Kabir Taneja, Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, who focuses on West Asia notes that Kashmir has never been a major issue for the OIC. “The Kashmir issue within OIC has always been subdued, and not gained much traction, and the fact that former Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was invited to speak at the OIC in 2019 rankled Islamabad to no end.”

In terms of the problems between the two countries, Taneja also points to Pakistan’s attempts to attend a Malaysia- Turkey- Qatar-led meet outside the OIC ambit, which Pakistan had to shamefacedly skip after furious opposition from the Saudis.

“Saudi is in a regional tussle with Turkey, and an internal GCC tussle with Qatar,” Taneja explains, adding that “Pakistan, almost seen as a satellite state, has often rankled the Saudis in recent past both by entertaining a Turkey- Qatar led block and also refusing to send in troops as part of UAE-Saudi coalition for Yemen.”

The souring of relations came to a head on the anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, when Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi vented against the OIC, telling a Pakistani TV channel in an interview that if the OIC didn’t convene a meeting of foreign ministers on Kashmir, he would be forced to “ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris”.

Riyadh has now demanded premature payments of loan amounts like those mentioned earlier, and refused to extend the deferred payment facility, even after Pakistan paid back USD 1 billion, according to ANI.

CAN PAKISTAN AFFORD THIS RIFT WITH SAUDI ARABIA?

Taneja agrees that it was “Qureshi's statements threatening Saudi Arabia that if they did not convene a meet on Kashmir at the OIC then he will be forced to advise Imran Khan to go ahead and do so without Riyadh,” that pushed things over the edge.

The Saudi treatment of Bajwa is even more layered than one might think at the outset, he suggests. “Reports in Pakistani media suggest that Army Chief Bajwa, who went to Saudi presumably to conduct damage control, was not granted an audience with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, which is not so much about not just meeting the MbS as the prince, but also the fact that MbS is also defence minister.”

This is important because, as Katju as previously argued, one of the key terms of the Saudi-Pakistan relationship was that Pakistan provided military support for the Royal Family. However, the all-powerful crown prince – often referred to by his initials MbS – no longer seems to view this defence relationship as importantly.

In addition to economic reforms, Katju argues that “In the foreign policy sphere too, he is building new relationships and upgrading old ones such as with India. This last factor is no doubt responsible for his lack of desire to embarrass India on the changes in Kashmir.”

The fact that Bajwa, who had been sent to try and soothe the leadership’s hurt feelings, was unable to get a meeting with MbS is important in this context, and underscores the seriousness of the problem.

"I do believe this is an issue that Pakistan would like to get resolved positively,” Taneja says. He warns that Pakistan cannot afford to let this key relationship fall away, regardless of its growing ties with China. He explains:

“Pakistan would also not like to become fully reliant on China, and have no hedging capabilities when it comes to issues such as financial aid. Despite being an ‘iron’ partner to Beijing, having only China as a beneficiary will leave Islamabad with almost no autonomy whatsoever, including on issues such as Kashmir. And let’s not forget, Saudi, UAE etc are also part of China’s BRI undertaking.”

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