By Dr. Farah Jan
President Donald Trump started the year with a tweet accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and followed that with the punitive measure of cutting $255 million in foreign military financing. In response, Islamabad vehemently denied the accusations and declared the alliance between Pakistan and the United States to be over. US-Pakistan relations have historically seen their share of ups and downs, and the current crisis is no different, with the next few years looking set to be turbulent.
Any change in relations will depend on the extent to which the interests of the US and Pakistan converge or diverge. However, for the near future, the US needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the US, at least so long as American troops are in Afghanistan. But this article is not another elaboration on the precarious relations between Pakistan and the US. Instead, the focus here is on Pakistan’s “other” historic strategic ally, Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom’s deafening silence on the current situation.
Saudi Arabia’s passive foreign policy towards South Asia (particularly Pakistan) is astonishing, especially at a moment in history when global power is shifting eastwards.
In the current atmosphere of shifting power structures and unpredictable alliances, Pakistan is in a comfortable position due to its geostrategic location. China has heavily invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and is quietly furthering its economic interests around the world while buying US debt. Russia is interested in joining the economic corridor and aspires to restore its previous position of glory as a superpower, so it will gladly fill the space the US is voluntarily vacating. That leaves the US under Trump. As the legend goes, “Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned” – but, in this case, Trump has played with Twitter while the US loses its global influence. The Trump administration expeditiously issues shoddy statements (or tweets), but there is no policy or any execution of one, whether it pertains to North Korea or Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of Trump’s New Year tweetstorm, China was quick to respond. The next day, the spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, affirmed China’s support for Pakistan and said Islamabad has made “tremendous efforts in combating terrorism… The international community should fully acknowledge that.” Likewise, the Russians, who historically are not key allies or strategic partners, reassured Pakistan with a statement from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which reiterated his country’s support of Islamabad. However, Pakistan’s key allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, remained silent. Why has Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Muslim world, remained silent on the current shift of alliances in South Asia? And what does that mean for the Pakistan-Saudi alliance?
Saudi Arabia has always emphasized its bilateral economic and security ties with Pakistan. The ties date back to the 1960s, when the two states signed a defense agreement that marked the start of a unique alliance between the two major Muslim states, with Pakistan providing soldiers for the protection of the Kingdom. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has supported Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir conflict and the Kingdom has also been a major source of economic assistance to Pakistan. About two million Pakistani citizens work in the Kingdom and send home $7 billion in remittances every year.
The two allies have decisively relied on each other on the diplomatic front as well. When ties between the Kingdom and the US were strained in the mid-1980s, Pakistan played a crucial role as an intermediary between Riyadh and Beijing. That resulted in the clandestine sale of Chinese CSS2 intermediate range surface-to-surface missiles – which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads – to Saudi Arabia. The sale was carried out without the CIA’s knowledge, with President Ronald Reagan calling the Saudis duplicitous for making the deal. The centerpiece of the Saudi-Pakistan alliance has always been security, but more recently the strategy from Riyadh is ambiguous when it comes to Pakistan, and South Asia at large. What is concerning is that Iran is gaining from this sluggish Saudi policy. The leadership in Riyadh must recognize its inadvertent lapse in the region. Foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger argues, is the art of establishing priorities, and Saudi priorities need to be reconfigured if it wants to be the leader of the Muslim world.
The Saudi strategy for the last 45 years has been to rely on its two crucial regional allies: Egypt and Pakistan. As one Saudi scholar noted, Riyadh’s regional foreign policy depends on a stable Egypt to the west and a strong Pakistan to the east. Hence, “the Kingdom should maintain good and distinctive relations with these two countries, which represent its two wings, so that it can fly safely in its foreign relation endeavors.”
So where does the alliance stand today? The Pakistani Parliament’s 2015 decision not to join the coalition in Yemen was a setback but, as one Pakistani official told me: “Saudi Arabia should not push Pakistan to the edge on Iran; after all, we share a border with them, and let’s not forget 15 percent of our population is Shiite.” Iran will not hesitate to support Pakistan’s Shiite population. This was evident back in 1987, when the Iranian Ambassador to Islamabad openly boasted to Pakistani officials that Iran could bring a million Shiites into the streets of Pakistan in a matter of hours. In such circumstances, the Saudi policy makers would have to make a choice of striking a balance with Pakistan.
The main focus of Saudi strategy since King Salman took over in 2015 has been to contain Iran and its influence in the Muslim world. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must take a page from the US Cold War strategy, which had alliances as one of its key aspects. That said, alliances do not have to be perfect; as Kissinger surmised, the test is not about absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. Mohammed bin Salman is introducing reform that is welcome not only to the youth of the Kingdom, but also around the world. However, the Crown Prince should readjust the priorities of the Kingdom in accordance with the changing times. Saudi Arabia must not hand over its regional allies to Iran, nor should it cede space that has traditionally been its domain or zone of influence. A wise Saudi policy would be to maintain and preserve its traditional alliances.
Saudi Arabia’s current passive policy towards Pakistan risks overlooking the political importance of the relationship. In fact, people familiar with the region know that the Kingdom has more leverage over Pakistan than the US. For Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is economically and diplomatically crucial and Islamabad cannot risk its alliance with Riyadh. If the question is where does the Pakistan-Saudi alliance stand today, the answer depends on the leadership in Saudi Arabia and what its next steps are going to be. Every Saudi leader since King Faisal has had a vision and policy for South Asia, but with a sense of continuity with the policies of their predecessors. For the Kingdom to be a fortress of Islam – and the Ummah – it needs a clearly enunciated vision by Mohammed bin Salman and a balanced strategy. The region awaits the policy and long-term strategy of the new Saudi Arabia under King Salman.
(Dr. Farah Jan is a lecturer at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, New Jersey. She writes on foreign and defense policies of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. email@example.com. Twitter @fjan1)