Pakistan and Saudi Arabia-UAE Dynamics By Inam Ul Haque

Alot has happened, at least in the perceptual domain, since August 27, 2020, when I wrote “The imperatives of Pak-Saudi relations”, published in this space. And perceptions are critical to any relationship. Then… the interdependent nature of our historic and deep-rooted ties was emphasised. However, in the past six months, there have been some defining developments that would continue to underpin Pak-Saudi bilateral ties as long as Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) holds the reins of the kingdom.

First development concerns Saudi financial package. The $6.2 billion package included $3 billion in cash assistance (with 3.2% interest payable); and $3.2 billion in deferred payment for annual oil and gas supply. The package was for one year with a roll-over option for three years. The kingdom has demanded its money ($3 billion) ahead of the schedule. The oil facility stands suspended.

Pakistan repaid $1 billion to the kingdom in May this year after securing an equal amount in loan from China. And now China has again agreed to provide $1.5 billion, enabling Pakistan to repay the remaining Saudi debt. Pakistan was to retire $1 billion this week. The remaining $1 billion is due in January 2021. The way this issue has been handled, is not pretty.

The second issue concerns worker visas. Though the Saudi Ambassador did clarify last week that the kingdom was deporting all workers — irrespective of nationality — who did not have valid documents; Pakistanis would be disproportionately affected. And if you combine the UAE’s recent denial of visit visas to tourists from some 13 mostly Muslim majority nations including Pakistan, the move creates perceptual misunderstandings.

The third development is the six-day UAE (December 9-10) and KSA (December 13-14) visit by Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane, the Indian Army Chief; the first such visit by an Indian army chief. Gen Naravane’s visit took place immediately after the Indian External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar’s trips to UAE and Bahrain.

Understandably, India imports 18% of its crude oil requirements from the kingdom, which is India’s fourth-largest trading partner after China, the US and Japan. Both UAE and Saudi Arabia consider India as a major energy consumer and are building a massive $42 billion petrochemical plant in Maharashtra. The Gulf region hosts around 8.5 million Indian workers, with more than 2.7 million in Saudi Arabia alone. Almost 30% of UAE’s total population comprises Indians.

Assertive diplomacy by PM Modi has altered perceptions to an extent where his overtly anti-Muslim policies raise no eyebrows in the Gulf. The Modi government has actively wooed the kingdom, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait. After assuming office in 2014, Modi has visited the GCC countries eight times; UAE thrice and Saudi Arabia twice.

In October 2019, during his Saudi visit, both countries decided to establish the Strategic Partnership Council (SPC); India being the fourth country having strategic partnership with the kingdom after the UK, France, and China. This fits well with the kingdom’s “Vision-2030” roadmap to diversify its economy and better utilise the Khaleeji or Gulf capital, rather than keeping it in Western banks. The kingdom and UAE feel that India is better placed to economically help them given her size, resources and industrial potential.

Militarily, Saudi Arabia and India have formed a Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation (JCDC) with delegation-level visits since 2018. The Royal Saudi Armed Forces officers are to train at Indian defence training institutes. Joint exercises have commenced alongside port calls and plans for joint production of spare parts for naval and land systems.

With UAE, India has a Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC). Regular joint exercises, visit exchanges, port calls and talks on defence manufacturing and space exploration are underway. India, UAE navies conducted a joint exercise, ‘Gulf Star I’ off the UAE coast in 2018. Their air forces have conducted joint exercises like ‘Desert Eagle II’ at the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. UAE has shown interest in the Indian military equipment like surface-to-air Akash missile and anti-ship BrahMos cruise missile, besides investment in India’s defense sector such as unmanned platforms, shipbuilding, armoured vehicles, munitions and small arms.

The trio actively collaborates on counterterrorism, intelligence-sharing and coordination.

The continued Saudi/UAE bonhomie with India is construed as hedging against Pakistan. And the “perceived” chasm is linked to Saudi/UAE resentment of Pakistan’s stand-offish Iran policy. Both also accuse Islamabad which — despite liberal financial assistance by Riyadh — did not keep its pledge to “protect Saudi territory” by not militarily joining the Saudi war in Yemen. Details were covered in my article, “The Saudi pivot, Pakistan and Kashmir — is there a chasm?” published in this newspaper on August 12 this year.

The Saudi-UAE combine is also ostensibly wary of the “Erdogan-effect” on Pakistan. After assuming power in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has visited Pakistan four times. There is growing cultural, defence and diplomatic cooperation between Pakistan and Turkey.

In my August 26 article, I optimistically wrote; “Who knows, an Indo-Saudi warming up may augment Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir.” FM Qureshi’s statement in Beijing after the second round of China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue (August 20-21) was construed as a pressure tactic for the Saudi/UAE-dominated OIC to admonish India on Kashmir.

Consequently, the declaration after the 47th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers at Niamey, Niger (November 27-28, 2020) reiterated “… the OIC’s principled position on Jammu and Kashmir dispute”, calling for peaceful resolution according to the relevant UNSC resolutions. The outcome document in a comprehensive and strongly-worded resolution, included almost all points that Pakistan has been emphasising vis-à-vis Kashmir.

So the strands of Saudi policy gleaned from the above facts smack of a ‘carrot and stick approach’ wherein Saudi Arabia under its Crown Prince — who is in a hurry to redefine the regional order — simultaneously hedges against Pakistan and inclines to pro-Pakistan dynamics.

Though the historic constants of Pak-Saudi bilateralism — like religious affinity, Pakistan being the kingdom’s strategic depth, interdependence, military ties, etc — are in place, these are on hold due to a changed Saudi threat perception. Iran has replaced Israel in the Saudi/UAE threat perception and Israel brings India to the equation. India for its part would like to reduce its oil imports from Iran under the prevailing situation; and given the series of Israeli recognitions, the Saudi-UAE combine would like to rope in India that is closer to Israel.

A Saudi Arabia not sure of its place in the Biden administration is naturally frustrated. Loss of US reliability under Trump and Biden’s stated tough stance leaves the kingdom to look for alternatives.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2020.

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