On 17 February, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), began his South Asia tour with a two-day visit to Pakistan. He was accompanied by a 1000-member strong high-level delegation comprising members of the Saudi royal family, ministers, and businessmen. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan received the Crown Prince with a grand welcome, akin to Xi Jinping’s visit to the country in 2015. The magnitude of the visiting delegation and the grand reception given to MbS illustrate the burgeoning bilateral relations between the two countries. However, in addition to the stated shared objectives or beliefs, in the present geopolitical scenario, the current Saudi-Pakistan relationship is largely based on self-interests.
Khan’s Need for Economic Investment Since taking office in August 2018, Khan’s foremost challenge has been to improve Pakistan’s floundering economic situation. His administration has attempted to address the issue by seeking financial assistance from friendly countries and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In this context, the MbS’s recent visit to Pakistan could be seen as a step in the right direction.
Islamabad considers Riyadh as a “brotherly” Muslim nation and an important player in the South and West Asian regions. Pakistan’s foreign policy ambitions are seemingly connected with maintaining close and stable relations with the Kingdom. It is therefore no wonder that Khan chose Saudi Arabia as the destination of his maiden foreign visit after taking office as the new civilian leader of Pakistan in 2018.
Several promises were made during MbS’s visit to Pakistan. For example, Memorandums of Understandings (MoUs) worth US$ 20 billion were signed in a wide variety of sectors including in Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), renewable energy, and oil refining and mineral development among others. The proposed Saudi investment could be seen as Khan’s foreign policy success. On the domestic front, the outcome(s) of the visit could help Khan deflect the attention of the public and the opposition parties from the ongoing discussion regarding the dire economic situation in Pakistan.
Under present circumstances, the announced investment seems attractive to the debt-ridden Pakistan. In October 2018, Riyadh offered to provide US$ 3 billion in foreign currency support for a year and a credit line worth up to US$ 3 billion for the import of petroleum products on deferred payment. Other Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates followed Saudi footsteps and announced an aid package worth US$ 6 billion to help Pakistan.
In a possible attempt to avoid the strict IMF bailout guidelines—which might put the spotlight on the unrevealed CPEC investments—Pakistan has sought monetary assistance from its Arab friends and China. Additionally, Islamabad seems to be under pressure from the US as US Secretary of State Pompeo warned in 2018 that Washington will not allow IMF money be used to pay off Pakistan’s Chinese loans. In view of this, Saudi Arabia’s (a close US ally) investment announcement comes as a relief for the Khan government.
Apart from apparent economic interests, both countries seek to further improve their bilateral security cooperation. In a positive development for Pakistan, former Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif was elected to head the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). Pakistan is a member of the IMCTC which was launched by the Crown Prince in 2017. The multilateral forum would help strengthen military-to-military and security cooperation between the two countries.
MbS’s Political Objectives While economic investment was Khan’s primary motivation, economics is not what led MbS to visit Pakistan. For the Saudi Crown Prince, international politics superseded economics.
Pakistan has traditionally been a central component of Riyadh’s Tehran policy. Herein, two developments are crucial. On one hand, MbS, the de facto decision-maker in Saudi Arabia, opted for an increasingly assertive policy vis-à-vis Iran. This made their relationship with Islamabad a matter of even higher priority than before. However, on the other hand, the election of Imran Khan brought to power a figure who has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran agenda and its influence over the previous Pakistani government. Thus, faced with the prospect of resistance in Pakistan, MbS capitalised on the country’s economic issues to assert influence over Khan’s discourse and policy regarding the Gulf rivals.
Similarly, MbS also seeks to prevent the development of closer ties between Islamabad and Doha. Since the June 2017 Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, for Riyadh, the containment of the latter has become a policy objective equal in importance to countering Tehran. With Pakistan in need of foreign assistance and Qatar eager to fill any vacuum left by Saud Arabia, it is likely that competition with Qatar has guided MbS’s current Pakistan policy.
Islamabad’s failure to support MbS’s crucial foreign policy decisions has further strengthened Riyadh’s resolve to curb Pakistan’s autonomy with regard to its rivals. In 2015, the Pakistani parliament rejected Saudi Arabia’s request to join its purported anti-Iran intervention in Yemen. In 2017, following the blockade of Qatar, Islamabad did not limit its engagement with Doha. Instead, Pakistan increased its food exports to the country, aiding Doha and obstructing Riyadh’s plans. Moreover, Qatar’s transformation from a close ally to a regional competitor also serves as a reminder for Riyadh to not let Pakistan drift away from its sphere of influence. Given how it was the civilian arm of the Pakistani state in particular that hindered Saudi plans in both instances, these institutions have been at the center of MbS’s strategy.
Meanwhile, the murder of Saudi critic, Jamal Khashoggi, which has largely been attributed to MbS, is also likely to have impacted the Crown Prince’s Pakistan policy. Since the incident in October 2018, the US Congress has been working towards restricting American support for the war in Yemen and the nuclear deal between both countries. It is precisely in these two spheres that MbS believes Pakistan could be of value. Moreover, the Khashoggi affair has also strengthened the already-growing domestic opposition against the Crown Prince. By stepping up support for a Sunni-majority country, MbS is trying to appeal to the previously-alienated, yet important, conservative clerical and popular constituency.
The current Saudi-Pakistan relationship can be seen as an alliance of convenience based on both countries’ self interest, against a history of common geopolitical interests. Khan needs MbS to help stabilise Pakistan’s struggling economy. On the other hand, the Saudi Crown Prince needs Pakistan to do more to fulfil Riyadh’s politico-military objectives in the region, especially to counter Iran and Qatar. However, individual interests could strain the relationship in the long term. It would be interesting to see the extent to which Khan will be willing to accommodate MbS’ foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran. Pakistan will try to avoid direct military intervention in Yemen or similar operations in West Asia. A possible mismatch between MbS’ expectations and Khan’s manoeuvring space could lead the Crown Prince to withdraw promised aid and investment.
Sarral Sharma is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at IPCS.