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28.03.2014 Author: Natalya Zamarayeva

Pakistan – Saudi Arabia: strategic cooperation Part 1

We have recently witnessed a significant strengthening of bilateral relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Since Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif came to power in May 2013, the country focused on its regional foreign policy, on the strengthening of relations with neighboring states. Giving due attention to the relations with countries of its “near abroad” (Afghanistan, India, Iran, China, Turkey), Islamabad also placed emphasis on the development of relations with the Gulf countries, giving special attention to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

 The main reasons that are currently driving the countries towards each other include:

- Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have long-standing military, political and economic relations, dating back to the 1960s;

- To a certain extent, it is time for Nawaz Sharif to “pay his debts “ (we should recall that thanks to the intervention of Riyadh in 2001, the Supreme Court of Pakistan abolished the death penalty of the ex-premier Nawaz Sharif, on charges of treason, and after that, the monarchy gave him political asylum in its territory);

- The area, covering the countries of West Asia, the Gulf, North Africa, is currently in the process of forming a new regional leader, represented by an independent power or an alliance of countries. Recently, the world has witnessed two factors. First – withdrawal of the coalition troops of the U.S. / NATO / ISAF from Afghanistan is equivalent to the abandonment of this region by such world powers like the U.S.A., and everyone understands that this is a defeat. The potential vacuum will inevitably be filled by other major regional powers, such as China, India or a union of small states. The second factor – to date, many recognized leaders in the Islamic world have died, have been physically liquidated, or removed from power, for example: Yasser Arafat in Palestine, Assad Sr. in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya, and Mubarak in Egypt.

Based on this, the strategic partnership of Islamabad and Riyadh serves the interests of the Islamic Ummah, and, given its interests, will lobby for Washington’s interests in the region.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a special status in the land of Islam, which is highly revered by all the Muslims. Religious affinities, geographical proximity, the importance of geo-strategic position of Pakistan, Pakistani labor force in the Gulf countries (according to Pakistani media, 1.5 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are from Pakistan) make this country a close ally of Saudi Arabia on many major international and regional issues.

In the late 1960s, Islamabad supported the establishment of the National Defense Force of the KSA. Both countries had a similar position on the war in Afghanistan in 1980s, both supported financially and technically the military Mujahedeen. Since that time, Saudi Arabia has had historical ties with the Taliban. In May 1998, Islamabad conducted its first nuclear tests and Riyadh supported this (we should recall that this was when Nawaz Sharif was serving his second term as prime minister). The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates officially recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and maintained diplomatic relations with it from 1996 to 2001.

Such a position explains the cooling of relations between the monarchy and General Musharraf (in 1999–2008 he headed Pakistan) in September 2001, when he joined the anti-terrorist campaign of Washington. Riyadh regarded the break in Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a betrayal. However, at the same time, it did not prevent the Saudis from continuing to build relationships with the right-wing religious leaders and anti-federal elements in Pakistan. Riyadh’s support of Afghan Taliban, and later of those in Pakistan, contributed to the fact that later Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States involved them as intermediaries in the negotiation process in Kabul and Islamabad, and to the opening of a representative office of the Taliban in Saudi Arabia.

The relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia received a new impetus when the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came to power in 2008–2013. The sides noted the common views they had on regional and international issues; they outlined a plan of action, aimed at using the existing institutional mechanisms for further expansion of their strategic partnership and at the signing of a Free Trade Agreement. It should be noted that Riyadh’s intention to provide trade concessions to Islamabad was partly aimed at blocking the signing of the Pakistani-Iran gas deal. KSA had a reserved attitude towards the political career of President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP. The fact that in March 2013, he signed an agreement on the construction of a pipeline with the then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convinced the monarchy to wait for parliamentary elections and support the new leader of Pakistan – Nawaz Sharif.

The main suppliers of hydrocarbons to Pakistan are the countries of the Middle East: the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. At the same time, Riyadh dominates by sales, transporting up to 70 percent of the total volume of crude oil, imported by Islamabad and it wants to increase purchases.

 The short period of Nawaz Sharif’s third term as prime minister is characterized by the strengthening of bilateral cooperation between Pakistan and KSA at both international and inter-governmental levels. In October 2013, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supported the candidacy of the Ambassador of Pakistan Muhammad Naeem Khan to the post of Assistant Secretary-General of the Asian branch of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). We should not forget that in relation to bilateral cooperation, it was Nawaz Sharif, who called for “the development of a new era of strategic partnership between the countries.”

In 2014, there were two important visits by the royal family to Pakistan. In January, the Foreign Minister of KSA visited Islamabad, on February 15-17, the Defense Minister Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud discussed a package of contracts to purchase military vehicles and equipment from Islamabad. Moreover, Chief of the Army Staff of Pakistan General Raheel Sharif has just returned from Saudi Arabia, the main attention was devoted to security and defense issues.

Regarding the development of bilateral relations between Pakistan and KSA, we should not dismiss such a factor as the memory of generations. The influence of Saudi Arabia and the United States on the foreign policy of Pakistan had dramatically increased after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and, if eleven years after the withdrawal of the limited contingent from Afghanistan, Washington forgot all the promises given to Islamabad, Riyadh remained faithful to this country. This explains the unconditional convergence of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2014 – on the eve of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Despite the further strengthening of ties between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there are negative episodes in the history of their relations. In total, 54,000 Pakistanis were deported from the territory of the KSA only from May to November 2013, while 800,000 Pakistanis have legalized their status in Saudi Arabia during the same period. The monarchy rigidly adheres to its internal policies towards migrant workers.

 The unity of positions of the Muslim states on many international issues, following the example of Pakistan and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could potentially (given a combination of other factors) lead to a paradigm shift in the vast region stretching from Western Asia, the Gulf, North Africa, and to the formation of a “true Islamic leader” in the region.

(To be continued…)

Natalia Zamarayeva, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow in the Pakistan Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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