FOLLOWING the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Jordan and Bahrain announced a 40-day mourning period. Egypt called for a week of mourning, while the UAE had flags at half-mast for three days. Pakistan, meanwhile, opted for one day of mourning for the Saudi monarch.
The brevity of our lament should not, however, be misconstrued as an indication of the state of bilateral ties. Ties between the kingdom and Pakistan have been deepening since Nawaz Sharif came to power. There have been three high-level exchanges between the two countries in the past year, not including Sharif’s participation in Abdullah’s funeral prayers.
Pakistan last year was seen to shift its foreign policy on Syria to align with the kingdom’s view that the Assad regime must be toppled. Saudi Arabia meanwhile gave Pakistan $1.5 billion in aid.
Abdullah’s death offered many countries an opportunity to rethink bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Pakistan should use the occasion for a moment of foreign policy introspection as well, especially given the critical juncture at which the country finds itself.
Pak-Saudi ties must be reassessed in light of several factors.
For the first time in decades, this suggestion does not seem as ludicrous as it previously might have; for example, Riaz Hussain Pirzada’s recent comments in which he criticised Saudi Arabia for “promoting its ideology” at the expense of stability in the Muslim world hinted at a growing capacity to critically evaluate the relationship.
Only the naive would deny that Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia have a direct bearing on the success of the new counterterrorism strategy, the mainstays of which are the registering of madressahs and clamping down on terrorism financing.
It has long been an open secret that money has flowed from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to fund seminaries, some of which engage in jihadi activities. Now we’re willing to admit this more openly: the Senate last week discussed a report by provincial inspectors general pointing out that 23 madressahs (no doubt a gross underestimate) are receiving funds from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.
It is estimated by some sources that up to $3bn flow out of the kingdom to fund schools and mosques in other countries. To successfully check radicalisation, Pakistan will have to demand an end to Saudi patronage of religious extremist groups. This is all the more important because King Salman is perceived to be more conservative than his predecessor, and policies that lead to the flourishing of violent extremism in other countries will persist under his watch.
Pakistan should also re-evaluate its ties with the kingdom in light of the shifting dynamics in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is increasingly seeking to check Iranian influence in the region and gather allies to its cause. It will be looking to check Iran’s recent gains — the growing likelihood of a nuclear deal and rapprochement with the US; its strong influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. And the Houthi takeover in Yemen will probably make Saudi Arabia more anxious, exacerbating its tendencies to see the region through a sectarian prism.
In this context, Islamabad may feel pressured by Riyadh to ‘choose sides’, an unrealistic prospect in a country that has the second-largest Shia population outside Iran, and which — as the horrifying Shikarpur bombing last week and hundreds before it showed — is increasingly threatened with destabilisation as a result of sectarian violence.
Saudi Arabia, like the US before it, also increasingly sees Pakistan through a securitised lens, and the bilateral relationship is increasingly focused on defence ties. Following last year’s generous gift from Riyadh, rumours swirled that it had come in exchange for the Pakistan military’s support in terms of providing troops to guard Saudi Arabia’s borders as well as training for Saudi soldiers.
There is constant talk of arms sales and joint military exercises. The securitisation of the relationship is likely to be intensified because King Salman, who until Abdullah’s passing was the kingdom’s defence minister, has most recently interacted with Pakistan through a security perspective.
The further securitisation of the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship will have ramifications for Pakistan’s internal power dynamics and prospects for democratisation. In the same way that the Pakistan military’s direct ties to the US have been a source of strength for the institution at the expense of the civilian government, defence exchanges with Saudi Arabia could affect the civilian-military balance.
Pakistan in the coming months is going to feel more anxious: the Afghan government is a mess of divided politics; the US is cosying up to India with a civilian nuclear deal; and China is ratcheting up the pressure for Pakistan to crack down on Uighur militants. In this context of dubious allies, it will want to seek reliable friends where it can. But that shouldn’t stop Islamabad viewing the relationship with Riyadh through a more critical lens.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2015