Pak PM’s Riyadh Visit: Imran’s Case Is a Lesson – Don’t Irk the Saudis

Pakistan PM Shahbaz Sharif recently visited Riyadh, following the well-trodden path of his predecessors.

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The newly minted Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shahbaz Sharif, is back on track, at least as far as foreign policy goes. He has followed the well-trodden path of earlier leaders in making his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, the godfather of Pakistani politics and status. That status was severely undermined by Imran Khan and his Foreign Minister by their shenanigans in demanding that the Saudis act on Kashmir, or else...

As it turned out, the “or else” was eventually Khan’s ouster and the entry of the sober Shahbaz, a person as far from the excitable Imran Khan as anyone could possibly imagine. And that sobriety is being rewarded, even as Riyadh not just opens up but also shows signs of encouraging Pakistan to do the same.


The History of a Very Close Relationship

The Saudis have always been the first port of call for any new leader. It's not just that they, together with the UAE, virtually underwrite the Pakistani state – there are various other factors tying the two together, some of them well-known, and others not so much. Then there is the fact that Riyadh is the centre of the Islamic world, and anyone who wants to be seen as a credible leader back in Pakistan has to receive its blessing.

One, the Saudis have long provided aid to Pakistan. They came to the assistance of Mohammad Ali Jinnah with the first foreign aid of £10,000 in 1943 to help the people in famine-hit Bengal. That assistance continued after Pakistan (and India) went into economic isolation after the 1998 nuclear tests. Riyadh not just congratulated Pakistan on the tests but provided 50,000 barrels a day of free crude on deferred payments to the then-Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

This was hugely beneficial to Pakistan, especially when this was topped up with a grant for budget support. In total, that was a $6.2-billion facility, of which half was in deferred oil payments – a deal that is incredibly valuable to a Pakistan, which has seen an increase of 100.78 per cent in its petroleum products bill as it reached $12.941 billion in July-February 2021-22, the highest ever.

It was this gift that Imran Khan threw down the drain when his Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmud Qureshi, threatened to form a breakaway group from the Saudi-helmed Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) if it did not act strongly on India’s action on Article 370.

An understandably furious Saudi Arabia provided a new facility a year after it had expired, and that too on far harsher terms.

Riyadh Has Got Generous Again

As of now, it seems that Riyadh has again extended its generosity. The joint statement refers to “augmenting the $3 billion deposit with the central bank through term extension or otherwise, and exploring options to further enhance the financing of petroleum products and supporting the economic structural reforms for the benefit of Pakistan and its people”.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani economy depends directly on both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of whom accounted for some $1 billion in November 2021, a notable segment of a source of foreign exchange that is vital for the sustenance of the economy.


A Nuclear Umbrella of Chinese Make?

But in international relations – as in business – there are no free lunches. Over the years, the Saudis have virtually patronised the Pakistani nuclear programme, providing assistance in the 1970s when India first did its ‘peaceful nuclear test’. In 1999, the Saudi Defence Minister visited enrichment facilities in Kahuta in a visit that US officials called “definitely eyebrow-arching” and raised fears of a Saudi nuclear weapon – on lease. As Saudi aid grew – including a virtually anonymous gift of $1.5 billion in 2014 – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared that “any threat to Saudi Arabia would evoke a strong response from Pakistan”.

Despite all of this, the US, intent on keeping Pakistan on its side in an increasingly dangerous Afghanistan crisis, pointed out the involvement of Chinese assistance in the Saudis building their own missiles, a huge jump from when it had simply bought CSS-2 missiles from Beijing. Though the relationship became triangular, a lid was put on the Pakistan connection then, as it has been done now.


The Army and the Sheikhs

The bilateral relationship also has a direct security presence in the form of Pakistani army troops, who were first deployed in 1979 to repel an extremist seizure of the Holy Mosque in Makkah. Several thousand troops were later deployed to protect the Kingdom during the Iraq war, and a smaller contingent stayed on.

Relations, however, were stymied when the Saudis demanded that Pakistan support its foray into Yemen, which Parliament could not agree to, primarily due to opposition from Imran Khan’s party and the Iran-supported Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen.

They also refused to support the appointment of General (retd) Raheel Sharif to lead the ‘Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism’, though the remit of the troops sent was rather painstakingly described as not venturing outside Saudi soil and not being part of any operation against any other Muslim country.

Iranian fears were smoothed over the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa quietly meeting the Iranian Ambassador a day earlier. Meanwhile, the continued presence of Pakistani troops in both operational and training missions and their possible additional deployments for the counter-terrorism role speak of a vital role in the Kingdom, even as the present and past chiefs work towards the normalisation of this important relationship.


Today's Saudi Arabia Isn't the Same as That of '70s

Given this history, it is no surprise that the Saudis – and the UAE behind them – are more welcoming of the Pakistani Prime Minister. Elder brother Nawaz Sharif also enjoys a close relationship with the Kingdom, and both are likely to press their case for strong investments.

But the Saudi Arabia of today is quite different from that of the seventies, when ‘historical’ ties were vital to the relationship. Riyadh, under His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, is looking at a muscular foreign policy that will serve his country well and reduce its dependence on oil, with a planned 12 trillion riyal local investment.

That explains the India outreach, which is one of the largest importers of Saudi oil, and Riyadh’s plans for $100 billion in investment. That is also the reason for the bland reiteration of a ‘peaceful’ resolution to Kashmir in the joint statement.

Pakistan was offered $20 billion in investments in 2019. That came to nothing not just because of Imran Khan’s bad policies but also because of doubts over whether Islamabad could deliver in terms of technical talent, infrastructure, and reasonable economic and social strength, all issues that the Chinese, too, are facing in Pakistan. If it does come in, Islamabad must expect to play the piper's tune and not suddenly branch out in courting countries like Turkey, which have little to offer. Even then, it may face difficulties with Iran, who is watching to see whether the Saudis will offer cake or just let Islamabad eat bread. It’s a difficult act, particularly when a former Prime Minister is out on the streets creating as much trouble as he possibly can.

Meanwhile, India has no reason to be insecure. Its own interest lies in ensuring not just smooth Saudi investments in the ‘Aatmanirbhar’ programme but also that Riyadh’s own plans in this area are amply fulfilled. Don’t forget it’s the Prince himself who is in the chair of that particular initiative. And he doesn’t like being baulked. That should be the ‘lesson learnt’ from the Pakistan-Saudi relationship.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Pakistan   Saudi Arabia 

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