After the April 2015 low — when the Pakistani parliament historically turned down a request to participate in the Saudi-led war in Yemen — it seems that the Pak-Saudi bilateral relationship is now on an upward trajectory. Although that decision was mainly motivated by a growing shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy, which is apparently becoming China-oriented in its outlook and calls for friendly relations with the country’s neighbours, including Iran; and fears that Pakistani involvement in Yemen will negatively affect Pakistan’s sectarian harmony and internal security, yet there is simply no case for Pakistan to isolate itself from the Middle Eastern powerhouse that has been a staunch supporter of Pakistan internationally over the decades.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy warm and friendly relations. Since establishment of the bilateral ties, the two countries have endeavoured to nurture this relationship and develop strong ties in various fields. It is also no secret that Pakistan’s closest relationship with Saudi Arabia is the cardinal principle of its foreign policy and Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia a strategic partner because it has always extended its support to Pakistan on matters of strategic interest. Both countries share common views on regional and international issues and their ties have continued to grow with the passage of time. Saudi Arabia strongly supported Pakistan in its wars with India in 1965 and 1971. Saudis have also been supporting Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir.
Saudi Arabia regards Pakistan as the fortress of Islam as repeatedly declared by its leadership. The people of Pakistan hold Saudi Arabia, its leadership and people in high esteem and will always stand shoulder to shoulder with their Saudi brethren in all times. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Pakistanis hold the most favourable perception of the desert kingdom in the world; with 95 percent of respondents viewing Saudi Arabia favourably.
Saudi Arabia has been providing key financial assistance to Pakistan, including in the form of oil supplies at critical moments. While deliberating on Pakistan’s response to the Yemeni crisis in April 2015, Pakistani legislators noted that when Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998 the international community imposed sanctions against it, while Saudi Arabia provided the country with free oil. Pakistan has been the recipient of aid from oil-rich Saudi Arabia more than any country outside the Arab world since the 1960s. It has provided Pakistan oil concessions and direct funds to shore up its foreign exchange reserves in times of need. Most recently, in early 2014 the Saudi government provided $1.5 billion in financial assistance to Pakistan, apparently to help the country resolve the chronic circular debt problem in its power sector.
Saudi Arabia has also been the destination of choice for a large proportion of Pakistani economic migrants.
Saudi Arabia hosts more than 3 million expatriate Pakistanis who act as a strong bridge of friendship between the two countries. This community is making valuable contribution to the economic development of Saudi Arabia as well as Pakistan. They sent $5.6 billion worth of remittances (one-third of total remittances) to Pakistan during financial year 2014-2015. A large number of professionals, including doctors, engineers and auditors from Pakistan have earned good reputation for their professionalism and hard work in the Kingdom.
Established in the 1960s, defence and military-to-military ties between the two countries, mainly linked to the training of Saudi military officers, have remained largely cordial. A bilateral programme of cooperation on this issue was signed in 1967. Later, in December 1982, the Organisation of Saudi-Pakistani Armed Forces was founded, headquartered in Riyadh. Since then Pakistani troops have been stationed in parts of Saudi Arabia, including a brigade in Tabuk and another at Khamis Mushahid. In the early 1990s, when Iraqi president Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, Pakistan sent another battalion to Saudi Arabia. Also, the two countries held joint military exercises for the first time in 2004 named Al-Samsaam (Sharp Sword), which continued in subsequent years.
Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, General Kayani, described Saudi Arabia as “the most important country for Pakistan” in 2011.
Furthermore, in the arena of counterterrorism cooperation, the Pak-Saudi relationship has been a strong one and continues to have the potential for expansion. The more than a decade of cooperation in the fight against Al-Qaeda has yielded a strong partnership and has shown that experience can be put to use to fight new transnational threats that can undermine both countries.
In this regard, the main Saudi interests have been the elimination of al-Qaeda and the achievement of security and stability in Pakistan. Similarly, the Saudis will be more than ready to actively support Afghan or Pakistani counterterrorism efforts if IS makes inroads into these countries.
Political and Religious Ties
Over the course of their engagement with Pakistan, the Saudis have developed and extended close links with large sections of the country’s political and religious elites. The Saudis have at times also played a mediatory role in resolving problems around the civil-military relationship and other political crises in Pakistan.
Other Areas of Cooperation
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, both the countries had enjoyed most cordial relations which were not confined to political, economic, commercial, security and religious matters. Common faith and culture had further enhanced by close geographical proximity, historic trade ties, religious association and the economic facilitation. In recent years, both countries have exchanged high-level delegations and developed plans to expand bilateral cooperation in trade, education, real estate, tourism, information technology, communications and agriculture.
The Iran Factor
Saudi Arabia and Iran are two key regional players in the Middle East. Both countries are struggling to become heavyweight champion in Middle East. Pakistan has cordial relations with both countries politically, religiously and brotherly. Iran is in neighbourhood while Saudi Arabia is the custodian of two holiest places for Muslims.
Iran is an important part of the equation for attaining regional peace and therefore cannot be ignored in the long term. It is imperative that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is normalized, and Pakistan needs to play a positive role in helping accomplish his dream. As a neighbour, Iran is a natural trade and defence partner of Pakistan, a fact which needs to be acknowledged by the Pakistani government in order to improve relations with Iran in a significant manner. Wisdom is required on both sides; Saudi Arabia and Iran should realize that the politically — created Shia-Sunni divide is not in the interest of any country so such divide needs to be bridged, and not exacerbated.
New Military Alliance
On 15th December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a new 34-state alliance to fight terrorism that will share information and train, equip and provide forces if necessary for the fight against Islamic State militants. Pakistan is also among the member states — though the country was surprised at its inclusion as the FO said. Other states joining the new coalition included Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia and several African nations.
The announcement said that the coalition is being established because terrorism “should be fought by all means, and collaboration should be made to eliminate it,” and that Islam forbids “corruption and destruction in the world” and that terrorism constitutes “a serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security.”
Due to evolving strategic environment in the region around Afghanistan, in the Gulf region due to extra-regional powers’ interests there, and ongoing implications of the Arab Spring, this is the most suitable time to move fast in developing a strong politico-economic partnership between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
For building very long and enduring mutual strategic relationship both countries should devise a common strategy on facilitating Afghanistan’s reconciliation process. To coordinate their efforts in this context, both should formulate a consultative group including Afghanistan. Pakistan should also initiate steps to narrow down political differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran and between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Both countries should also sign related agreements on trade and investment-oriented economic cooperation.