Pakistan has trapped itself in a time warp because of its Kashmir obsession. It is, consequently, simply incapable of assessing the changing dynamics within its traditional partners and their evolving approaches to the region and the world at large. Its present tensions with Saudi Arabia are a clear manifestation of its neurosis.
Pakistan has been disappointed at the lack of Islamic ummah’s high-level or united interest in the constitutional changes in the then state of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019. It has been virtually left all alone on this issue. It marked the anniversary of the changes as Youm-e-Istehsal (Kashmir Siege Day), but Muslim countries largely ignored it. It was left virtually alone in spouting venom against India on that day.
What’s Rocked Saudi-Pakistan Relationship?
Frustrated, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi vented against the OIC. He told a Pakistani private TV channel on 5 August that if the OIC would not convene a foreign ministers meeting on Kashmir, he would be compelled 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”.
Saudi Arabia is the prime mover in the OIC. Thus, Qureshi had, in fact, directly and harshly criticised it.
The Saudis are particularly sensitive to even a perception of a challenge to their leadership of the Islamic ummah. In recent times, Turkey has been more-or-less doing so, and in this it was joined by Malaysia under former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The two had organised a meeting of Islamic countries in Kuala Lumpur in December 2019. Prime Minister Imran Khan had agreed to attend it but decided against doing so under Saudi pressure. In return, Pakistan expected that the Saudis would agree to call an OIC foreign ministers meeting on Kashmir. Till now, the Saudis have shown no interest to do so. This has embittered Pakistan.
- Despite all the high rhetoric of brotherhood between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the fact is that the former has never had respect for the latter.
- Over the past four decades, a factor in the Saudi-Pakistani relationship was the Saudi ruling family looking to Pakistani military presence on its soil for its security.
- Now all this is changing because Saudi Arabia has outgrown these needs, and under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to chart a new course.
- A glimpse of the changed attitude towards India was seen in a recent article on Indian theatre doyenne, Ebrahim Alkazi, in an Indian daily by the Saudi ambassador in Delhi. This was inconceivable in the past.
- This is illustrative of Saudi Arabia’s continuing interest in building comprehensive ties with India and to not allow the shadow of its ties with Pakistan to fall on them.
Why Saudi Arabia ‘Does Not Respect’ Pakistan
Despite all the high rhetoric of brotherhood between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the fact is that the former has never had respect for the latter.
This is because of Pakistan’s obsequious attitude towards the Saudi ruling family. It has behaved as its lackey.
Pakistan has allowed the Saudi princes and members of ruling families of other Arab gulf states liberties that no self-respecting country would allow. This has included rights to hunt endangered bird species. Also, the Saudis were occasionally approached to resolve internal political issues including those between the army and the politicians. Some Pakistani politicians and senior army officers have resented Saudi attitudes, but Pakistan’s economic dependence on Saudi largesse leaves them no choice but to only fulminate.
Over the past four decades, a factor in the Saudi-Pakistani relationship was the Saudi ruling family looking to Pakistani military presence on its soil for its security.
This was never acknowledged. Indeed, it was always vehemently denied, but Pakistani troop detachments were stationed in Saudi Arabia for this purpose. Now all this is changing because Saudi Arabia has outgrown these needs, and under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to chart a new course.
While maintaining an authoritarian political system, he is opening up Saudi society to modern trends on gender issues. These are baby steps by present global standards but are substantial if viewed from the austere Wahabbi doctrines to which the ruling family is wedded. Mohammed bin Salman has also realised that the Saudi economy needs new directions to reduce its dependence on oil. 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.
Saudi’s Continuing Interest In Building Ties With India
A glimpse of the changed attitude towards India was seen in a recent article in an Indian daily by the Saudi ambassador in Delhi on India-Saudi connections. It was written soon after the death of the doyenne of Indian theatre, Ebrahim Elkazi, whose father was of Saudi Arabian origin. It was inconceivable till recently for a Saudi Ambassador to use a theatre personality to write “his legacy will forever remain a testament to the rich intellectual and cultural links between Saudi Arabia and India”.
This is illustrative of Saudi Arabia’s continuing interest in building comprehensive ties with India and to not allow the shadow of its ties with Pakistan to fall on them.
Pakistan has no option but to accept this, for notwithstanding all its bravado and the help it may receive from China, its financial dependence on Saudi munificence will not diminish substantially.
And, Saudi Arabia showed its fangs by demanding that it return USD 1 billion which it had given by way of deferred payments for oil purchases. The Pakistanis are caving in.
Will Saudi Arabia ‘Oblige’ Pakistan Even A Little?
Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa is going to Riyadh to soothe the Saudi leadership’s hurt feelings. He will no doubt emphasise the commitment of the Pakistan Army to the House of Saud. He will also seek to ensure that Saudi funds do not dry up and will seek at least crumbs to show that the Muslim world is concerned over Kashmir – if not on the constitutional measures then on the administrative steps – some of which continue.
It remains to be seen if the Saudis will be willing to oblige him even a little.
One last word. The Pakistanis are only wary of getting physically entangled in Saudi-Iran issues. This was witnessed in the controversy of Pakistani combat troops in the Yemen war. Short of that they have little choice but to be supine, despite momentary warnings such as articulated by Qureshi.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)