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Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia’s main intelligence agency, once described the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as ‘probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty’. Prince Turki himself was at the helm of Saudi decision-making for over three decades and oversaw the close cooperation between the two countries during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, the Afghanistan campaign, and in post-9/11 defence diplomacy.
There were difficulties in the relationship. The Pakistani parliament’s opposition to Islamabad’s military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in the ongoing war in Yemen sparked controversy and questions about the essence of the strategic relations between the two countries. However, Pakistan’s decision not to join their Saudi allies in that war was largely due to domestic preoccupations; these include fighting Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban and dealing with rebels from the country’s southwestern Baluchistan region. These issues have left Pakistan domestically exhausted and have influenced Islamabad’s decision to stay out of the Yemeni conflict so as to avoid opening up an additional front with Iran, the Houthi’s powerful external patron and source of resources, which could contribute even further to instability inside Pakistan.
Yet despite Pakistan’s neutrality in the Yemen crisis, Saudi-Pakistan relations remain strong and largely unaffected; Pakistan participated in exercise North Thunder, which took place in northern Saudi Arabia, along with 20 other Arab and Muslim countries in March 2016, and General Raheel Sharif, the former Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism. Still, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has often been seen over the years as being rooted in the personal relationships between Saudi kings and Pakistani prime ministers, rather than the formal institutions of the two countries.
For a long time, the relationship has been characterised by an exchange of capital flows from Saudi investors of various sectors, in return for military cooperation. According to the last available statistics, the value of trade exchange from mid-2012 to mid-2013 reached $5 billion. Over the preceding decade (from 2002 to 2012) the value of trade exchange reached approximately $30.7 billion. Saudi Arabia’s motives for capital investment in Pakistan have not only been financial, for the Saudis have offered support in more difficult times, and without direct commercial interests. For example, when a devastating earthquake hit Baluchistan in 2005, Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan with $10 million in humanitarian aid. Moreover, when floods swept across Pakistan in 2010 and 2011, Saudi Arabia granted Pakistan $170 million for relief operations and reconstruction activities in the affected areas. In January 2018, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan pledged to strengthen their economic ties with a preferential trade agreement that would fit in with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. This is seen as addressing the previously grey area of ties between two countries. where no one quite knew what was being signed and by whom.
Furthermore, military ties between Riyadh and Islamabad date back to the early 1960s when the Pakistani army contributed to the establishment of the Saudi armed forces. It also assisted the Royal Saudi Air Force with the introduction of their first fighter jets. There are over 1,200 Pakistani trainers in various Saudi security and military sectors, either under the Ministry of Interior or the armed forces.
In light of the current economic and political reforms in Saudi Arabia, in which the Kingdom is eager to implement Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are now hoping to adopt a more strategic partnership, moving beyond from the whims of personal ties. Recently, the Saudis have sent two significant delegations to Pakistan with the aim of exploring trade investments and defence ties, sharing intelligence in the field of combat against terrorism, and forming strategic working groups to handle the future development of relations.
The Crown Prince, who also acts as Defence Minister, received the Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in Riyadh in February to discuss bilateral military relations, with particular focus on how to strengthen and develop military training, joint exercises, and the exchange of military expertise. The Saudis have given support to Pakistan in combating extremism. In a recent press conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir praised its partner and announced that Pakistan had a role to play in sharing with the world the lessons it had learned from its own war on terror.
More significantly, it appears that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are interested in an interdependent security relationship, one which does not infringe on either’s relations with other countries. Saudi Arabia, for one, is strengthening its strategic ties with India without jeopardising its relationship with Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan has explained to the Saudis that although going into Yemen was never an option for Pakistan’s military, Islamabad would defend Saudi Arabia when and if needed. Despite its recent rapprochement with Iran, Pakistan has made clear that it supports Saudi Arabia’s interest in guarding against Iranian interference in Gulf security and Saudi Arabia’s internal security. And, in turn, Saudi Arabia has supported Pakistan in disputes over the Kashmir problem at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would join the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, a comprehensive strategic project of Pakistan’s ‘Vision 2025’ development programme, with a view to undertaking investments at Gwadar Port, which will strengthen the trade exchange between the two countries. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s leading English website, Arab News has launcheda special Pakistan bureau and website, the first such effort outside of the Kingdom.
In summary, the trajectory of Saudi-Pakistan ties seems to be heading in a strategic direction; it is becoming institutionalised, and it increasingly addresses both countries’ strategic interests.
Kamal Alam is a visiting fellow at RUSI. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin is a Middle East affairs and security analyst focussing on GCC security affairs. He has a PhD from Durham University and tweets at @Alothaimin
BANNER IMAGE: The Pakistan International School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.