Saudi-Pakistani Relations in a Cul-De-Sac?

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Huge consequences could follow from the demise of a seventy-year-old strategic alliance, according to an opinion piece “The Saudi-Pakistani Divorce” by Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Rai al-Youm, an Arab world digital news and opinion website. He was the editor-in-chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi from the founding of the paper in 1989 until July 2013.

Mr. Atwan points out to “a small news item on the business pages of Arab newspapers this week which shed light on a major strategic crisis that has been developing in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and long-time ally Pakistan”.

Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan Mr. Nawaf bin Said Al-Maliki called on Prime Minister Imran Khan on Dec 21, 2020

“Interesting body language of PMIK while meeting KSA ambassador today,” says a security analyst on PM Imran Khan’s meet with Saudi envoy today. The analyst is associated with an Islamabad-based think tank.

According to Atwan –and some independent observers agree, relations between the two countries have been worsening for some time.

“In my opinion (however) there is no clash between the two states (Pakistan and KSA)…Arabs are not idiots,” says a Pakistani defense official posted at one of the most important Middle East capitals.

When asked to comment further, he says “we may be expecting too much”. There may be problems with some personalities in his opinion, “but there aren’t problems between states”, he says. “Things would improve after some time…people come and go.”

According to him, “no one can replace Pakistan for KSA.”

“We (however) need to be non-emotional and rational,” the official adds.

The first big downturn in Pak-Saudi relations came in 2015, according to Atwan, when “Pakistan refused to send troops to take part in the Saudi-led war on Yemen.” “This also signaled Pakistan’s rejection of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman’s idea of forming an ‘Islamic NATO’ under Saudi leadership,” says the author in his opinion piece.

“Tensions rose further over the ultra-sensitive issue of Kashmir. Islamabad was dismayed by Riyadh’s noncommittal response to India’s decision to revoke the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir. This was viewed as de facto Saudi approval for India’s annexation of the disputed province.

Saudi Arabia also blocked efforts to get the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (ICO), which it effectively controls, to take action on Kashmir. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned at the time that if Riyadh would not act on the issue, Islamabad would seek a meeting of Muslim-majority countries outside the OIC framework to provide it with backing. This affront to Saudi Arabia’s Islamic leadership pretensions appears to have prompted its decision to recall the $3 billion loan.

The Pakistani army’s chief of staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, tried to use his good offices to ease the mounting tension between the two countries. He flew to Riyadh for talks, but was denied a meeting with the crown prince and returned empty handed. This snub deeply offended both the Pakistani government and the traditionally pro-Saudi military establishment.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, is wary of Pakistan’s improved relationship with Iran, fearing among other things that it could involve the transfer of Pakistani nuclear technology. It balked at Imran Khan’s agreement to attend the ‘alternative’ Islamic summit convened by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – in close coordination with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — in December 2019 to discuss problems facing the Islamic world. The kingdom put enormous pressure on the Pakistani prime minister not to attend. He eventually succumbed, fearing the Saudis would cut off financial support or retaliate against the millions of Pakistani expatriate workers in the Gulf states whose remittances are crucial to sustaining the Pakistani economy.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, feels it no longer needs Pakistan. It invested billions of dollars in supporting the country’s economy — and its nuclear program – over many years. In return it acquired political allegiance, military personnel and expertise that were vital for its armed forces, and a proxy nuclear deterrent against any potential military threat: such as from Iran.

But times have changed. Pakistan and Iran are on good terms, and Saudi Arabia has spearheaded the process of normalization between Gulf states and Israel – a far more potent nuclear power, which shares its enmity towards Iran.

The historic strategic alliance between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf is drawing to a close. Pakistan is looking elsewhere: to China, Turkey and Iran and their allies…

“I tend to agree with his (Atwan’s) assessment,” a senior Pakistani military official tells DesPardes on condition of anonymity, as he’s not authorized to comment officially.

In his view, “the fragility of Arab states, the disconnect of the ruling monarchs and their populations are the biggest threat the Arab countries will face”. “Earlier, the facade of pan-Islamism and support for oppressed parts of Muslim Ummah gave a degree of legitimacy to these rulers”, he says. However, “with them gravitating toward Israel may be the final straw.”

According to him, “Iran will be the biggest beneficiary.” But “ironically, lots of Muslim blood may be shed in the process,” he says.

Atwan predicts “a powerful Islamic coalition opposed to Saudi Arabia might take shape during the course of 2021”. The coalition “could join forces with Russia and China in a bid to mount a global pushback against US hegemony,” says Atwan.

“At a time of American retrenchment and deep domestic problems, some US clients in the Middle East think Israel could serve as an alternative ‘protector’. That explains all their normalization moves. But they will surely, eventually, be disappointed.”

The original article appeared in apple.news.