The Dubious Role of a Pakistani Army Chief in Securing a Saudi Loan

This transactional reality is an augury of the future and Islamabad can't even rely on Riyadh to offer support.

6 min read

Weeks after the passing of the Lahore Resolution asking for a separate Muslim homeland in 1940, Saudi Crown Prince Saud bin Abdul Aziz visited Karachi with five of his brothers, three of whom subsequently became kings. He was hosted by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and even before Pakistan gained independence, Saudis funded Jinnah’s frequent pleas, eg, as during the Bengal famine.

Saudis even facilitated the meeting of Jinnah’s team with United Nations (UN) delegates in 1946, and expectedly became the first country to recognise independent Pakistan, the only country in the world to be established in the name of religion.

As Khadim al-Haramayn as-Sarifayn or custodian of the two holy mosques, the Saudis felt obliged to patronise the ostensible 'land of the pure’ ie, Pakistan. Soon dubbed Saudis' 'closest Muslim ally’, the relationship became transactionally, win-win.

From openly siding with Pakistan in the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965, and 1971 to even lauding Pakistan for conducting its nuclear test, Chagai-I, in 1998 as a 'bold decision’, Saudis supported Pakistan at its most vulnerable times (eg, diplomatically and practically by supplying oil at super discounted prices when the US imposed sanctions).

Saudi Arabia's 'Sudden' Financial Aid

The latest statement of the Pakistani finance minister acknowledging the gratitude of its Army Chief towards the Saudi aid of USD 2 billion has a history and context beyond the officialese of co-religiosity, and other niceties. This transactional reality is an augury of the future and Islamabad cannot even rely on Riyadh to offer other forms of support like diplomatic, moral, or trade-related, as Delhi has increasingly made itself far more significant and reliable on those parameters.

Oil-rich Saudi can/did outsource all menial and difficult jobs that its overentitled citizenry deemed inappropriate for themselves to pursue, hence, inducting a huge migrant workforce from Pakistan (approximately 2.5 million). Besides the element of religiosity, the frequent grant of financial aid and the sizeable quantum of foreign exchange repatriation by the Pakistani migrant workforce made Saudi Arabia the Shangri-la for all purposes.

With this backdrop, when the entire global focus was on IMF (International Monetary Fund) potentially bailing out Pakistan from sure economic meltdown, it was Saudi Arabia who slipped USD 2 billion into Pakistani coffers, suddenly.

However, it was the message of the grateful Pakistani Finance Minister Ishaq Dar that stood out, “I thank Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Army Chief."

It was completely out of place for a Foreign Minister of an ostensible democracy to lead the sovereign gratefulness by invoking its Army Chief – someone not functionally or constitutionally mandated onto economic imperatives and one who figures only in Article 7 of the official Warrant of Precedence (way below some others like the President (Article 1), Chairman of the Senate (Article 2), Chairman Consultative Committee on Economic Policy (Article 5) or even the Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee (Article 6).

As the real McCoy in the Pakistani narrative, the extraconstitutional role of the Army Chief is the worst kept secret. Presumably, Pakistani Army Chief, General Asim Munir, would have played a key role as per the transactional equation to secure this Saudi largesse, and keeping Pakistan afloat.

Security Import From Pak

Essential wiring of this transactional Saudi-Pakistani relationship is predicated on ‘security’, as far as the Pakistani side of the bargain is concerned.

The ‘security’ angularity started in earnest when the British Military’s support to King Faisal’s Saudi Arabia became unreliable in the early 60s and Riyadh turned to Islamabad to help train, man and even fly its Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). The financially struggling Pakistanis obliged readily and partook in operations in Yemen’s Al-Wadiah War in 1969.

The inclusion of Pakistani Military wherewithal to secure Saudi ‘security’ became extremely cost-efficient, professionally efficacious, and attractive towards Saudi convenience. At one time up to 20,000 Pakistani troops were stationed on Saudi soil.

While Egypt was another similar country that could have supplied a reasonably well-trained and financially eager workforce to the Saudis, Egyptians came with the additional baggage of Arab intrigues, Gamal Nasser’s anti-monarchial and pro-Soviet leanings which made the Pakistanis, the preferred bet.


The 'Islamic Bomb'

It was almost officialised 'mercenarisation’ as the template of Pakistani boots-on-ground was adopted by other Sheikhdoms like United Arab Emirates, Jordan and they proved their utility in events like Six-Day War (where Pakistani Group Captain Saiful Azam shot two Israeli aircraft), Operation Black Thunder (included, then Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq, later President), Grand Mosque Seizure at Mecca in 1979, etc.

Specifically for Saudis, whenever the House of Saud felt threatened internally or externally (eg, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, during the 80’s Iran-Iraq War, and even subsequent Gulf Wars), the Pakistanis were dutifully invoked.

This convenience and trust led to the vital financial support and ‘cover’ afforded to Pakistan whilst virtually outsourcing the task of the ‘Islamic Bomb.'

Israeli intelligence has noted frequent visits by the infamous nuclear proliferator Dr AQ Khan to Saudi Arabia, as also of Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan’s two visits (May 1999 and 2002) and Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to Kahuta nuclear facility.

Today, the Saudi-led and Riyadh-based 41-country alliance against ‘counter-terrorism’ ie, IMCTC (Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition). is led by former Pakistani Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif.


Saudi’s Equation With Pakistan Military

Tellingly, the highest Saudi Arabian order of merit, the Order of King Abdul Aziz (awarded to Saudis or foreigners for exceptional services to the Saudi Kingdom) has never been given to any civilian Pakistan President or Prime Minister ever (though given to Narendra Modi in 2016, besides to the likes Obama, Trump, Xi Jinping, etc,) and has instead been given to an unprecedented ten Pakistani Generals (or equivalent) namely, Farooq Feroze Khan, Zubair Mahmood Hayat, Sohail Aman, Tanvir Mahmood, Muhammad Zakaullah, Tariq Majid, Muhammad Afzal, Pervez Musharraf, Raheel Sharif and the previous Pakistani Army Chief, Qamar Bajwa! Clearly, the Saudis know which side of the Islamabad-Rawalpindi twin cities, matters most!

Whereas the civilian politicians are toyed with impunity and as per topical necessity. While Saudi facilitated the asylum of deposed Nawaz Sharif and his family to Saudi after the Military coup by General Musharraf, it allowed the Shia Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto to go to the gallows by General Zia-ul-Haq, after his coup. Saudis vigorously supported Zia’s Pakistan in funding and arming the Afghan mujaheddin (along with the CIA) and contributed to the Shariatisation of the Pakistani narrative.


The blame for the pernicious infusion of the alien Wahhabi strain (as opposed to the moderate and native Barelvi, Deobandi, or Sufistic) is attributed wholly to Saudi Arabia and its backdoor activities with the Pakistani ‘establishment’ ie, Pakistani Military.

In the Saudi calculus, all Pakistani civilian politicians are susceptible to being pulled up with Riyadh expressing its anger at them multiple times eg, when the Pakistani Senate disallowed committing troops towards Yemeni theatre in 2015 owing to sectarian concerns.

Even when previous Prime Minister Imran Khan got too arrogant and ambitious for his own good by attempting a rival alliance with Iran-Qatar-Malaysia within the Ummah (Muslim world), the Saudis got miffed and withheld financial aid. Imran Khan’s charm offensives like personal chauffeuring of the Saudi heir apparent and Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) from the airport, were mere optics.

When the Pakistani Generals sparred with Imran Khan, the Saudis kept a decisive silence and allowed the vainglorious Pathan to fall. As always, the Saudis backed the Pakistani Generals for they knew that it was only the offer of ‘security’ provided by the Pakistani Generals that mattered, nothing more.

Today, despite much-bandied platitudes of ‘closest allies possible’ the fate of Pakistani expats in Saudis remains amongst the most abused and forgotten, unlike the Indian, Bangladesh, and Sri Lankan missions who routinely step in to call out unfair practices and treatment of their diaspora. Pakistani sovereignty is beholden and sold out to Saudi largesse (with only ‘security’ as a legit counteroffer), everything else can be compromised.


(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. 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.)

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