Pakistan’s balancing act may be failing

Pakistan’s strategy to keep good relations with everyone is no longer working in an increasingly polarised Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia''s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on October 15, 2019 [File: Reuters]

Earlier this month, the long-simmering tensions between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia came to a boil when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi publicly criticised the kingdom for its perceived lack of support for Islamabad’s interests in the disputed Kashmir region.

During a televised interview on August 4, Qureshi said Islamabad expects the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to convene a meeting on Kashmir. Otherwise, he said, Pakistan would be “compelled” to “call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir”. Qureshi’s comments have widely been viewed as a veiled threat to create a new bloc that would rival the Saudi-dominated OIC.

In response, Saudi Arabia withdrew a $1bn loan it had extended to Pakistan in November 2018, when the country was in dire economic straits and required foreign reserves to avoid a possible sovereign default. The kingdom has also refused to renew a deferred oil payments scheme that was part of the same package. 

In a bid to control the damage, on August 17, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa rushed to Riyadh. However, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) did not grant an audience to Bajwa, and the powerful military chief abruptly returned to Islamabad after holding a short meeting with Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. 

Soon after General Bajwa landed in Pakistan, Qureshi left for China, sending a clear message to the kingdom that Islamabad is diversifying its alliances and re-evaluating the value of its strategic partnership with Riyadh. 

The latest diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should be seen in the broader context of recent strategic realignments in the Middle East and the Muslim world. For some time, Pakistan has been struggling to keep to its traditional policy of maintaining neutral relations with rival Muslim powers. While Islamabad is concerned about the deepening strategic and economic cooperation between its arch-rival India and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is equally frustrated by Pakistan’s overtures towards Muslim-majority states it views as hostile, such as Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar.

Furthermore, the proposed Iran-China deal that is due to make both Islamabad and Tehran important nodes in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is expected to change the dynamics of Pakistan’s relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as the main threat to its regional and global ambitions, is concerned about the possible emergence of a new partnership between Iran and Pakistan under the stewardship of China.

After India’s August 2019 move to revoke Indian-administered Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, Pakistan expected Arab states to ferociously endorse its Kashmir policy. However, Saudi Arabia – and its Gulf allies, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – failed to take a strong stance against India, frustrating Islamabad. 

The Gulf states have balanced their dealings with Pakistan and India in the past. But now, it seems, they are openly moving closer to India and away from Pakistan. 

This new strategy was on display during MBS’s February 2019 tour of South Asia. The Saudi Crown Prince not only made the unprecedented move of visiting India directly after Pakistan, but also promised to make larger investments in India than he did in Pakistan. After signing a memorandum of understanding valued at about $20bn to help prop up Pakistan’s economy, MBS said in New Delhi that he expects Riyadh’s investments in India “to exceed $100bn in the coming two years”. 

A few weeks later, in March 2019, the UAE also made it clear that it is seeking closer ties with India at the expense of Pakistan, when it invited India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj as a guest of honour to the OIC summit it was due to host. Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi pulled out of the summit in protest, but failed to make the UAE rescind its invitation to India. 

Today, Saudi Arabia has several reasons to value its deepening partnership with India more than its historic ties to Pakistan. While the annual trade between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stands at around $3.6bn, Saudi-India bilateral trade is worth more than $30bn. This trade differential partially explains, despite persistent Pakistani requests, why Riyadh has avoided raising the Kashmir issue beyond mere tokenism. Unlike Pakistan, Saudis do not take a zero-sum view of their growing economic cooperation with India. In fact, economic overtures towards India are part of MBS’s post-oil economic diversification efforts. 

Furthermore, the new government in Pakistan is moving closer to Turkey and Malaysia – two countries that Saudi Arabia views as challengers to its prominence within the Muslim world. Last December, Pakistan caved in to Saudi pressure and pulled out of the Kuala Lumpur summit, which was perceived by many as an attempt to replace the Saudi-controlled OIC. The embarrassment it suffered over the affair made Islamabad more eager to carve out some autonomous policy space to safeguard its vital strategic interests without perpetually depending on its Arab allies. As a result of Pakistan’s efforts to be more autonomous, which moved it closer to Riyadh’s rivals in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia started to perceive Pakistan more as a potential rival than a loyal ally. This too likely makes the Saudi leadership less eager to lash out at India over Kashmir. 

While Pakistan is undoubtedly well aware of Saudi Arabia’s move away from itself and towards India, given its economic dependence on the kingdom, it cannot afford to sever its ties with Riyadh completely. This is why Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently played down his country’s differences with Saudi Arabia, claiming that the “rumours” about a rift between Riyadh and Islamabad are “totally false”. 

Amid ongoing strategic realignments in the Middle East and the wider world, we are likely to see many more ups and downs in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the coming days. It appears Saudi Arabia will continue to move closer to India, ignoring Pakistani demands for support on Kashmir. Pakistan, meanwhile, is unlikely to give up on its diverse partnerships and return to Saudi Arabia’s orbit. While some friction seems unavoidable, the two long-time allies can prevent further fraying by assuming a pragmatic approach and working to strengthen ties in areas of convergence, such as security. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article wrongly referred to Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa as Lieutenant-General. The article also erranously claimed Saudi Arabia’s $1bn loan to Pakistan was interest free, this has now been corrected.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.