Pakistan Reader# 128, 18 August 2020
Although PM Khan is dismissing rumours of souring Pak-Saudi ties as complete falsehood, the fact that COAS Gen Bajwa and the ISI chief were unable to secure a meeting with the Saudi's Crown Prince is noteworthy. The larger question is: Is the damage done?Lakshmi V Menon
The statement by Pakistan's Foreign Minister Qureshi may echo the growing frustration within the country, regarding the lack of support from the OIC for its position on Kashmir. Whether his statement has the potential to undermine Islamabad's relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or not, it reflects a new divide within the OIC and the tensions between the two Muslim countries.
Pakistan's foreign minister makes a statement on Saudi Arabia and the OIC, expressing his frustration and angst
On 5 August, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi directed an unusually charged statement to the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) asking the latter to stop procrastinating the convening of a Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting on the Kashmir issue.
The Foreign Minister, on a talk show, said: "I am once again respectfully telling OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. If you cannot convene it, then I'll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris."
He also referred to Pakistan skipping the Kuala Lumpur summit on KSA's request and was now seeking in return that Riyadh "show leadership on the (Kashmir) issue". Qureshi added that he fully understood the implications of his statement and that he was "taking a position" despite Pakistan's good ties with Saudi Arabia. ("Qureshi asks OIC to stop dragging feet on Kashmir meeting," Dawn, 6 August 2020)
Irked by the FM's remarks, on 10 August, Saudi froze oil supply to Pakistan (Saudi Arabia supplies 50 per cent of Pakistan's oil imports) and ended the ongoing loan facility. Riyadh further forced Pakistan to repay $1 billion, which the latter did by borrowing from China and called it an economic favour to the kingdom during the pressing times of the pandemic. ("Pakistan returns $1 bn to Riyadh", The News International, 8 August 2020) A deed the kingdom of Saudi Arabia would reckon an insult.
Domestic criticisms against Qureshi's remarks
Pakistan's Opposition leader and the President of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Shahbaz Sharif criticized Qureshi's remarks. He called them "highly unfortunate and (an) irresponsible" diplomatic folly. Sharif said PTI's "cavalier" attitude would undermine Pakistan's "trusted relationship with the Kingdom". ("Shahbaz assails Qureshi's remarks about Saudi Arabia," Dawn, 8 August 2020)
Editorials in leading newspapers and media houses were also vociferous in their response to the statement. They also echoed Pakistan's frustration over the Kashmir issue, however, also lamented the frictions caused by Qureshi's remark. Internal analyses highlighted the potential fallouts of a Riyadh-Islamabad rift pronouncing the dangers it would pose to Pakistan - regionally, politically and financially. For example, an opinion article by Umar Waqar and Adeela Naureen highlighted the importance of Pakistan's position in the OIC in the spirit of Islamic brotherhood and fraternity, with Saudi as the OIC's "Fountainhead". They opined the following: both Saudi's and Pakistan's constitutions were based on the Quran and Sunnah; reminded Pakistan of the historical and traditional nature of the bilateral relationship since Pakistan's birth in 1947, and spoke of how the Kashmir problem has been a cornerstone among the brethren. ("Saudi-Pak relations are unique," The Nation, 12 August 2020)
An editorial in Dawn said that foreign policy goals must be clear and should ensure that Pakistan takes a moral stand without annoying their benefactors. It acknowledged the swelling frustration among Pakistan's ruling elite and the geostrategic blocs in the Muslim world, but pointed out that no former government has been this critical of Saudi Arabia. Another editorial in The Express Tribune said: "While we have all the right to give precedence to our own national and diplomatic interests, nothing should annoy a friend like Saudi Arabia with which our bilateral ties spans our entire existence as a nation. We are sure the incumbent government realizes the importance of Pakistan's strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and knows how to proceed ahead."
On Saudi Arabia: The Deep State disapproves the FM's statement
On 10 August, the Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Nawaf Saeed Al-Malkiy called on the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to discuss the regional security situation, issues of mutual interest and bilateral defence relations. The COAS later visited the Headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). ("Saudi Envoy calls on COAS," The News International, 11 August 2020) Three days later, Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar said there was "no doubt about the centrality of KSA in Muslim world" and dismissed doubts regarding Pak-Saudi ties. ("Bajwa meets military leaders in Saudi Arabia," Dawn, 13 August 2020)
Following the diplomatic spat, on 16 August, the COAS flew to Riyadh along with the ISI chief. They discussed "matters of mutual interest including bilateral defence and security cooperation and regional security" with Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister for Defence Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, full younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As per the Saudi statement, issues of "common concern" for preserving regional security were also discussed. ("Bajwa, Saudi deputy defence minister discuss security issues," Dawn, 19 August 2020)
Frustration or Game plan?
In light of the recent developments, certain questions loom large. Does Pakistan intend to ally with existing formations, or create a new bloc with like-minded states? Is the incumbent PTI government, led by Imran Khan, thinking beyond the OIC? Or, does PTI want to emphasize and adopt an independent approach to the OIC?
Pakistan has been pushing for an OIC CFM meeting ever since the revocation of Article 370 by India on 5 August 2019. They want Saudi to apply bilateral pressure on India and raise the Kashmir issue in international forums, such as the OIC and the United Nations. Neither has materialized. Qureshi's statement may have been one out of desperation that occurred in the spur of the moment. ("Saudi Arabia unwilling to back OIC ministers' meeting on Kashmir," Dawn, 6 February 2020)
Or, is it a precise, and a calculated message to the OIC, Riyadh and Pakistan's domestic audience for political mileage?. The latter seems more likely as neither the Foreign Office nor the PTI government has extended an apology or back-tracked from the FM's remarks. The FO defended Qureshi's remarks calling it a reflection of "people's aspirations and expectations from the OIC to raise the Kashmir issue internationally". ("FO defends Qureshi's remarks on Saudi-led OIC over Kashmir," Dawn, 7 August 2020)
If so, can Pakistan or the incumbent PTI government afford such a move?
The foreign minister's remarks and warning mark a distinct departure from Pakistan's traditional policy towards Saudi Arabia – one of diplomatic subservience. Two events are worth referring to in this context: Pakistan's hunt down of journalists who published anything against the KSA during the fiasco of the Jamal Khashoggi murder and skipping of the Kuala Lumpur summit. ("Six Pakistani journalists investigated for posting Khashoggi photos online," Reporters Without Borders,1 April 2019) However, the ISI and Military rushing to mend ties with Riyadh. This is despite alternatives like China and Turkey, is saying something. The Establishment seems to be not in agreement with PTI. Resistance from the Military and opposition will make PTI incapable of taking such a stand.
Bilateral Ties: A quick balance sheet
Contrary to Islamabad's rhetoric, Saudi Arabia - Pakistan relationship is one-sided. In 2018, Riyadh gave a $3 billion loan and $3.2bn oil credit facility to Pakistan to avert a balance-of-payments crisis and shore up its foreign exchange reserves. In the past six years, Riyadh has contributed to madrasa reforms, higher education, defence and other projects. During the Saudi's Crown Prince MBS's recent visit to Pakistan, the largest-ever Saudi investment deals in Pakistan worth $20 billion were concluded. It included an oil refinery in Gwadar worth $10 billion and investments in renewable energy, petrochemical complex and mining sectors.
The above would reflect Riyadh's investments in Pakistan's long-term economic development. China is Saudi Arabia's oil's largest importer and Riyadh, as part of its economic-diversification program, has been expanding and deepening trade ties with Asia's emerging economies and partaking in China's Belt and Road Initiative.
It is not only economic investments from Saudi Arabia. Remittances from over 1.5 million Pakistani nationals residing in Saudi account for the largest share (27.5%) of Pakistan's total overseas remittances, followed by UAE (18.2%), US (14.4%) and UK (9.9%). (Asha Gul and Mahreen Mahmud, "Remittances from Saudi Arabia: A Community phenomenon," Pakistan Institute of Development Economics). Additionally, Riyadh had emerged as a top Middle Eastern export destination for Pakistani goods in 2020, despite the pandemic. A 34 per cent increase was recorded in June 2020 compared to the previous fiscal year's corresponding period.
On the other hand, Islamabad did have its own political positions, running against what Riyadh would otherwise want. In 2015, Pakistan's Parliament rebuffed Saudi Arabia's coalition call for the military effort in Yemen, making analysts raise eyebrows. Riyadh, however, downplayed the Parliament's vote. ("Parliament insists on neutrality," Dawn, 11 April 2015)
Islamabad's fraternizing with the Turkey-Qatar-Iran-Malaysia camp, in recent years, has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh. When Pakistan agreed to attend the Kuala-Lumpur Summit headed by Turkey and Malaysia and hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi expressed reservations. Saudi Arabia considered it an attempt to form an alternative to the OIC. Subsequently, in December 2019 following PM Khan's visit to Riyadh, "neutral" Pakistan withdrew from the summit voicing concerns that it would "divide" the Muslim world; a display of Pakistan's dependence on Riyadh. ("'Neutral' Pakistan pulls out of Malaysia summit of Muslim nations," Al Jazeera, 18 December 2019)
Saudi Arabia based Arab News, ran an opinion titled "Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: A partnership too important to fail" on 17 August, a day after Pakistan's COAS and ISI chief landed in Riyadh. Written by a former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan Dr Ali Awadh Asseri, it lamented the unfortunate comments by Qureshi. He explained that the OIC's Contact Group on Kashmir, led by Saudi Arabia's Ambassador Yousef M. Aldobeay had conducted visits to Pakistan occupied Kashmir in March 2020 and rejected the 'Jammu and Kashmir Grant of Domicile Certificate Rules 2020' and the 'Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Order 2020'. The article, critical of Turkey's and Iran's influence over Pakistan, asked: "Why should Pakistan fall into this trap?" Asseri says that "FM Qureshi's diatribe" does not hold ground after ISPR's statement regarding the undoubted and unquestionable centrality of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world. An accurate appraisal of the domestic standing of PTI's OIC stance.
Although PM Khan is dismissing rumours of souring Pak-Saudi ties as complete falsehood, the fact that COAS Gen Bajwa and the ISI chief were unable to secure a meeting with the Saudi's Crown Prince is noteworthy.
The larger question is: Is the damage done?