Pak Saudi Relations: Is It Beginning of The End

Pak Saudi Relations: Is It Beginning of The End

Sat, 08/29/2020 - 11:14
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By Brig N K Bhatia (R)

An acrimonious birth in 1947 with a major dispute with India over Kashmir and a not so acrimonious dispute over the boundaries with Afghanistan, set the agenda of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Its endeavour to seek support for its security, economy and political growth forced it to seek new friends, more aligned to its religious entity than any other common factor.

In the first step for its quest to forge an alliance, it joined in mid 1950s Turkey, Iran and Iraq as part of “Baghdad Pact”, a US supported "northern-tier" alliance that ‘in principal’ favoured a Middle Eastern defence pact. The alliance was against communist expansion and meant to promote shared political, military and economic goals. It was later renamed Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) after departure of Iraq from the Baghdad Pact.

Similarly, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), came to be formed in September 1954, of which Pakistan became a founding member. The SEATO was US led alliance for collective defence in Southeast Asia. It gained access to the organisation due to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) having being in closer vicinity of Southeast Asia.

CENTO never promised ‘Collective Defence” nor it had any joint military command although the member states and Pakistan in turn benefitted immensely from this alliance, receiving substantial US weapons and economic assistance. As part of CENTO three regional members; Pakistan, Iran and Turkey set up in 1964 the Regional Co-operation Development (RCD) to strengthen social economic development, more as a run up to apprehensions of political-military objectives of CENTO.

The Indo-China war of 1962 afforded an opportunity to Pakistan to forge closer ties with China. It entered into negotiations with China leading up to a border agreement being reached  in 1963 and followed it with other agreements. The Indo-China war of 1962 had drawn US closer to India with US opening up military aid to India. Pakistan’s growing closeness to China forced US to curtail arms supplies to Pakistan.

The Indo-Pak conflict of 1965 saw the reshaping of Pakistan’s relations with the Muslim world, with Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Muslim countries coming out in its support against India and Saudi Arabia and Jordan providing it financial support while Iran chipped in with free oil.

As a result of developments post 1965, the relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia set on an ascending trajectory.

Post 1965: The Initial Thaw

The first formal agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the field of defence was signed in August 1967. This paved the way for the two countries to commence formal exchanges. As part of the agreement, Pakistan placed its soldiers on Saudi soil, under Saudi command.

Pakistani armed forces helped to build the Saudi military machine, construct Saudi fortifications and provided training to Saudi air force pilots. Saudi armed forces personnel also commenced receiving formal training with Pakistan armed forces in its training establishments. Pakistani pilots, as part of Saudi Air Force, also participated in South Yeman operations in 1969.

The launch of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) 1969, in Rabat, Morocco, after the burning down of Al Asqa mosque in Jerusalem, led by Saudi initiative was a turning point in getting the Muslim countries to unite for the interests of Muslim world. Its mission statement claimed it to be the "the collective voice of the Muslim world". At the time of its origin 24 countries joined the outfit including Pakistan. This brought Pakistan further it close to the Arab world.

The 1971 war between India and Pakistan was to change the outlook of Pakistan completely. A resounding defeat at hands of India and birth of Bangladesh; notwithstanding the material and financial support extended by the Muslim world, notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya and Iran forced it further to identify itself with the Arab world.

President Bhutto after assuming office in 1972 was abashedly forthright in stating that post birth of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s destiny lay with middle-east and Arab world. He stated “There is a whole uninterrupted belt of Muslim nations, beginning with Iran and Afghanistan and culminating on the shores of the Atlantic and Morocco. With the people of all these states we share a cultural heritage, religious beliefs and a good deal of history. There is thus a community of interests which is further buttressed by the similarity of our aspirations and hopes. Clearly we have to make a major effort in building upon the fraternal ties that already bind us to the Muslim world.”

Pakistan hereafter saw its future in close alignment with the Arab world and increased its involvement with OIC and Arab world. This led to its support of the Arab countries in their conflict with Israel and despatch of medical teams in solidarity with them. In show of solidarity with the Muslim world it hosted the second OIC meeting in Lahore in 1974, bringing together 37 Islamic countries on a single platform.

The meeting would later help it overcome the shock of rising oil prices through increased economic assistance from the Arab world. Consequently, between 1973 and 1976 Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE bank rolled Pakistan to the extent of US $ 993 million, accounting for one third of foreign aid. The close cooperation with middle-east countries also opened the flood gates for Pakistanis who found employment opportunities in these countries enabling them to remit substantial amount of foreign exchange back home.

1979 and Beyond

Saudi Arabia’s foray into Pakistan in 1970s was in relation to religious education, emphasising on establishing madrasas with Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandi traditions of Islam, a more puritanical than the traditional Sufi Islam practiced in Pakistan. Pakistan over looked the fact that the Ahl-e-Hadith tradition was more akin to the  Salafi or Wahhabi Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia.

The religious impetus provided by Saudi Arabia was later to meet the twin goals of Saudi Arabia; to reign in the Iranian Shia brand of Islam and in subsequent years provide Mujahideen from the madrasas to fight Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. It is estimated that Pakistan was receiving close to $ 100 million annually for promoting its brand of Islam through an expansion of madras across the country.

In backdrop of Iranian Revolution in 1979 the Saudis were faced with the crisis of takeover of the Great Mosque forcing it to reinforce its security and military capability. Pakistan was the main benefactor as it is known to have provided close to 3000 to Saudi Arabia by 1980. This grew further with Pakistan contributing more troops including an armoured brigade that was based in Tabuk from 1982 to 1988.

Estimates of Pakistan troop contribution vary, but suggest a figure between 20 to 40 thousand troops including air force. Pakistan was forced to retract its personnel in 1988 over dispute on non-deployment of Shia troops in Saudi Arabia and unsubstantiated reports of disagreement over its employment in Iran-Iraq war.

In exchange of Pakistani support Saudi Arabia increased aid to Pakistan from $100 million annually to $800 million–$1 billion.  In addition to this extensive military cooperation, Saudi Arabia played an important role, at the call of USA to provide for financial assistance to Pakistan to train and equip anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan.

Pakistan having found a new role of being a front line state seemed only too willing to oblige and become the vanguard to provide military assistance to Saudi Arabia and safe sanctuaries to Islamic fighters for operations in Afghanistan.

With its eyes shut Pakistan overlooked the fact that it faced the threat of a religious upheaval within its own boundaries through unhindered mushrooming of Madrasas and slow churning shaping up its cultural roots.

Nuclear Cooperation

The Pakistan- Saudi Arabia nuclear cooperation is shrouded in secrecy but there is ample evidence of the two countries cooperating in the nuclear field. As far back as 1970s then President Bhutto solicited US $ 500 million from Saudi Arabia and Libya for its nuclear programme. Saudis had agreed to finance Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear facility in exchange for training of Saudi scientists on nuclear power.

In 1988 Saudi Arabia agreed to provide Pakistan with 50,000 barrels of oil per day on deferred payments in backdrop of US sanctions against nuclear tests. A visit to Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories in 2003 by Saudi Saudi Defence Minister accompanied by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief confirmed nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

It suggested to an implicit guarantee of Saudi access to Pakistan’s nuclear technology in exchange for financial aid to Pakistan. Such an arrangement suited Saudi Arabia since it being a signatory to Non Proliferation Treaty did not want to embark on its own nuclear weapons development programme.

Economic Saviour

More than once Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of Pakistan to pull it out of economic mess, as has been amply laid out in preceding paragraphs. For almost 20 years, Saudi Arabia has provided Pakistan with 50,000 barrels of petroleum a day, free of charge—a gift valued at almost $2 billion.

In not distant past (2014) Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan a $1.5 billion loan to shore up its economy. Post assumption of office by current Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan faced a precarious financial condition. During Saudi Investment conference in October 2018, Pakistan managed to get US $6 billion in debt relief—$3 billion in direct loans and $3 billion in deferred oil payments. On his state visit to Pakistan in February 2019, the Saudi Crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, signed $20 billion in Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)s, including in fields of energy, oil refining, and mineral development.

A Reality Check

The first ever disagreement between the two nations appeared when Pakistan surprised Saudi Arabia with its Parliament voting in 2015 by a majority against participation in the Saudi led war in Yemen against the Houthis, so as to stay away from the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, over the last one year the relationship between the two countries has shown strains in spite of denial from Pakistan.

The immediate reason for the strain is the new forum outside the precincts of Saudi led OIC. The idea for forum firmed up on the side lines of UN General Assembly in 2019, after meetings between leaders of Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia. Earlier during a visit to Turkey in July 2019, the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had called for ‘renaissance’ and a new start in the Islamic world led by the three democratic countries of the Islamic world - Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan. It excluded the Arab world.  

He invited the leaders to join a ‘mini Islamic Summit’ in Kuala Lumpur. After an afterthought Qatar, Indonesia and Iran (all with strained relations with Saudi Arabia) were asked to join the ‘mini Summit’.

The idea of an alternate forum for Islamic world was a direct challenge to the leadership of Saudi led OIC which has always taken up the challenges facing the Islamic world.

Pakistan Prime Minister was finally forced to abstain from the ‘mini Summit’ on chiding by Saudi Arabia and threats of withdrawal of economic assistance and expulsion of Pakistani nationals from Saudi Arabia. But the first seeds of differences between the two countries had been sown.

Pakistan’s outburst at Saudi Arabia through a statement by Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on August 5, to call for a special meeting of OIC on the Kashmir issue was the latest attack on Saudi leadership. Its insinuation of approaching other Islamic countries, more specifically the ones who had held the first ‘mini Islamic Summit’ in Kuala Lumpur, for sure would have upset Saudi Arabia.

Saudi reaction to Pakistan’s tirades was immediate. It immediately asked back for US $1 billion loan, part of a $3 billion loan it had given Pakistan in November 2018.  Earlier, US $3.2 billion Saudi oil credit facility to Pakistan had not been renewed after it expired in May, signifying Saudis were already irritated with Pakistan for having stepped out of line to demand for a ‘mini Summit’ at behest of Saudi detractors.

The statement of Pakistan foreign minister could not have been made without explicit approval of its political and military leadership. It for sure indicates a thinking within Pakistan of breaking free of Saudi influences and charting a new course with help from ‘Iron Brother’ China, Turkey and Iran.


The Saudi-Pakistani relationship has not been free of controversies. Many Pakistanis blame the Saudis for fomenting extremism and worsening sectarian tensions in Pakistan.

Notwithstanding the above, Pakistan has been a direct beneficiary of the economic largesse of oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

The future of Pakistan-Saudi relations for now remains tense. Will it fall back to its old allies, Turkey and Iran, that it nurtured as part of RCD (Regional Co-operation Development) would be the moot question. It will put it even closer to its ‘all weather’ friend China. As was apparent, immediately after the deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s foreign minister visited China for a strategic dialogue.

As for Islamic countries, Pakistan for sure will increase its efforts to muster an alternative alliance to press its agenda in collusion with Turkey and Iran. But that may at its own economic peril.

As for India, it will need to keep building its relations with the Arab countries to keep off the threat of Pakistan raking up Kashmir issue in various international forums. With China and Pakistan playing out their colluding games, India will need to be on guard and ready for all eventualities.

*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.