MAINTAINING close friendship with Saudi Arabia has long been a pillar of Pakistan’s foreign policy. No doubt, Pakistan has friendly relations with many countries in the world. In the Muslim world, relations with Turkey eg have been exemplary. However, friendship with Saudi Arabia covers strategic, military and economic interests of a magnitude not found in Pakistan’s relationship with any other country, except for China. The foundation for Pakistan’s friendship with Saudi Arabia is, of course, the Pakistani people’s strong attachment to Islam. They deeply respect Saudi Arabia as birthplace of Islam where its two holiest cities are located. Millions of Pakistanis visit Saudi Arabia each year for pilgrimage and other reasons.
Since the emergence of Pakistan, close ties have existed between the two countries. Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan in the two wars with India in 1965 and 1971. It stood squarely behind Pakistan on the post-1971 War issues like return of PoWs and non-recognition of Bangladesh. It has always supported Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. When there was Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1980, Pakistan saw it as a direct threat to its own security and decided to support Afghan Mujahideen in their war of liberation. Saudi Arabia fully supported Pakistan’s efforts since it considered Pakistan’s security as its own security. There has always been very close military collaboration between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Over the years, Pakistan has received more economic aid from Saudi Arabia than from any other Muslim country. The Faisal Mosque in Islamabad is a Saudi gift. When sanctions were imposed on Pakistan by USA and other countries, after our nuclear explosions in 1998, Saudi Arabia supplied oil to Pakistan free of cost for several years. The largest number of Pakistani workers abroad is in Saudi Arabia, an estimated three million. Their remittances are the highest from any single country in the world. Saudi Arabia is the largest trading partner of Pakistan in the Middle East. Pakistani leaders pay more visits to Saudi Arabia than to any other country.
Pakistanis have played a key role in the overall development of Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has trained a very large number of Saudi military personnel. On the strategic side, since 1950s, all Pakistani governments -civil and military- have assured Saudi Arabia that whenever there is a threat to Saudi security, Pakistan will come to its help. There is no formal treaty to this effect but this assurance has been repeated time and again. In 1969, Pakistani pilots saw action against South Yemen to repel an incursion by the Communist regime. Throughout the 1970s, Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia near the Israeli border. In 1979, the siege of Ka’aba and the Grand Mosque was ended with the help of Pakistani special units. During the 1980s, an unprecedented number of Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, mainly for internal security. In the Gulf War of 1990-91, several thousand Pakistani troops were sent for the defence of Saudi Arabia. At the present time, Pakistan is a member of Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism: its former army chief General Raheel Sharif is commander-in-chief of IMA.
Pakistan-Saudi relations are important for both countries and need to be carefully nurtured, based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s constraints and peculiar circumstances. As a proud country, Pakistan cannot be taken for granted. There must be appreciation in Riyadh that even though Pakistan is a nuclear power, it has serious security concerns, mainly due to aggressive designs of its large neighbour India. It cannot over-stretch itself nor can it afford to have bad relations with an important neighbour like Iran. Pakistan has made a huge commitment that it will help if and when there is aggression against Saudi Arabia. But there is no commitment that Pakistan will join Saudi Arabia when it goes to war with a third country. In a recent case, it should have been understood that since Yemen had not invaded Saudi Arabia, Pakistan could not be expected to get involved. Pakistan also does not want to be dragged into sectarian conflicts, since it has always sought to promote relations with Muslim countries, irrespective of sectarian differences. Terrorism is a common concern for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has suffered heavily due to terrorism, particularly due to its support of Afghan Jihad, which did succeed but left behind harmful consequences. Religious extremism has grown and led to terrorism. The Afghan Jihad radicalised and militarised Islamic extremists and created many Frankensteins. Thousands of Pakistanis have been martyred and there have been heavy financial losses. One factor for rise of religious extremism, since 1980s, is Saudi financial and ideological support for certain religious seminaries and religious groups in Pakistan. Probably, Iranian support for Shia groups in Pakistan induced Saudi Arabia and some Gulf States to patronise Sunni groups in Pakistan. But the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made Pakistan a battleground and destabilised it.
Moreover, it constitutes an unwarranted interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. To ensure Pakistan’s security, which has been an important Saudi concern, this kind of support for Pakistani religious groups must be stopped. Important internal changes are at present taking place in Saudi Arabia. Some of the reforms were overdue but the pace of change can be destabilising. Similarly, too many fronts have been opened in foreign policy. As a well-wisher, Pakistan hopes that matters will go smoothly in Saudi Arabia. Political stability of Saudia has long been taken for granted and it remains important not only for Saudi Arabia but also for a close friend and well-wisher like Pakistan.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.