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Pakistan’s ‘brotherly ties’ with Saudi Arabia are under geo-political strain

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Mecca in June 2019 

Geo-politics is an ever-changing phenomenon. Changes here often produce changes elsewhere, turning allies into rivals and vice versa. Pakistan’s stressed relations with Saudi Arabia indicate the impact of the changing geo-political scenario wherein both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are acting under the influence of tectonic changes taking place in the balance of power globally. 

Even as Pakistan’s Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Bajwa is on a ‘re-set’ mission to Saudi Arabia, the changing geo-political scenario is going to leave a long-term impact.

The strained Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations are mainly due to Saudi Arabia’s weak response to India’s arbitrary annexation of Kashmir a year ago and Pakistan’s criticism of the Saudi stance. But there is much more to it than meets the eye. 

To understand this, we must begin by asking as to why Saudi Arabia is not warming up to Pakistan as a ‘brotherly’ country must do? The answer to this question lies in Saudi Arabia’s changing relations with the countries of South Asia, particularly India, Pakistan’s main rival in the region. 

Also Read: Iran has no interest in keeping the US tied down in Afghanistan

Given the fact that Saudi Arabia has made investments worth billions of dollars in India undeterred by the Modi sarkar’s atrocities in Kashmir or the rising religio-nationalist forces of Hindutva in India, it is not difficult to understand why it is irked by Pakistan’s persistent demand for invoking the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and calling for a ministerial level summit to form a joint Kashmir policy.

Pakistan’s response to Saudi Arabia’s lacklustre response shows traces of its policy re-orientation. For instance, when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister called the Saudis out and threatened to move ahead “with or without” them, he was actually signalling the diplomatic support it has received from other powerful Muslim countries, including Turkey, Malaysia and Iran. Minister Qureshi’s clarion call aims to have “a meeting of Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.”

Iran being a bitter rival of Saudi Arabia, and the fact that its bi-lateral relations are no longer cordial with India because of the Modi sarkar’s unconditional surrender to US dictates, explain why Iran, otherwise known to have observed diplomatic silence on the Kashmir issue, has spoken up and strongly endorsed Pakistan’s stance.

Iran’s position is also deeply rooted in its fast-evolving strategic alliance with China, and the expectation that the ‘China factor’ will have an impact on Pak-Iran ties.

Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan has repeatedly spoken of creating a ‘golden ring’, connecting the Chabahar port of Iran with Gwadar port in Pakistan. The idea of a ‘golden ring’ also has Russia as one of its members, which shows that a new regional configuration, with two super-powers in it, will alter the regional balance of power in a very significant way. 

Pakistan, therefore, has very strong reasons to re-orient its foreign policy away from the larger-than-life influence of the Saudis.

Also Read: Strong case for regionalizing Pakistan’s foreign policy

As such, when the Saudis demanded their money back, Pakistan borrowed it from the Chinese, indicating again how Pakistan is increasingly drawing itself towards the ‘golden ring’, a China-led alliance not only strategically positioned to dominate and shape global politics, but also respond positively on Kashmir.

China’s August 5 message on Kashmir appeared strong when Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: “China closely follows the situation in the Kashmir region. Our position on the Kashmir issue is consistent and clear. First, the Kashmir issue is a dispute left over from history between Pakistan and India, which is an objective fact established by the UN Charter, relevant Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements between Pakistan and India. Second, any unilateral change to the status quo in the Kashmir region is illegal and invalid. Third, the Kashmir region issue should be properly and peacefully resolved through dialogue and consultation between the parties concerned.”

As far as the question of ‘Muslim Ummah’ is concerned, Pakistan’s willing participation in this ‘ring’ along with Iran, Malaysia and other Muslim countries, may also have implications for Saudi Arabia’s self-proclaimed leadership of the Ummah, whereby the [hypothetical] existence of an organisation standing in opposition to and politically challenging the Makkah-based OIC will erode Saudi Arabia’s central place in the Muslim world.

To a significant extent, Saudi Arabia has already lost the mantle as far as its traditional ‘leadership’ role in the Muslim world is concerned. The UAE is already in the race for assuming leadership. Accordingly, its recent decision to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, making the latter agree to halt its Wes Bank annexation, gives a strong message: the UAE is now the only country in the entire Muslim world with enough potential to ‘protect’ the Palestinians from the Israelis.

Besides the religious factor, Pakistan no longer has strong reasons to continue to stick to the age-old mantra of ‘brotherly’ relations with Saudi Arabia, which is working to Pakistan’s disadvantage as far as Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and its position in South Asia is concerned.