By Jai Kumar Verma
New Delhi. 22 August 2020. Shah Mehmood Qureshi Pakistan’s Foreign Minister stated at a Urdu talk show recently, “I am once again respectfully telling OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. If you cannot convene it, then I’ll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.” In reply of a question Qureshi also mentioned that Pakistan will move forward “with or without” Saudi Arabia.
Not only this, Pakistan foreign office also confirmed Qureshi’s statement and mentioned that the statement full-fills the wishes of Pakistanis. Islamabad was trying to convene a special meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the 57 members Orgnisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Kashmir, but Saudi Arabia thwarted Pakistani initiative. Pakistan wanted to gain the support of Muslim countries on the Kashmir issue after 5 August 2019 when India revoked Article 370 which ended the special status of Jammu & Kashmir.
Pakistan was disappointed when in 2019 foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) had gone to Islamabad to show their support after annulment of Article 370, but their statements were mild, and they had not criticised India emphatically. The basic reason of Saudi Arabia’s soft corner towards India is escalating trade relations with India. The bilateral trade between both the countries is about $ 20 billion and Riyadh is India’s fourth-largest trading partner.
Defence and security cooperation between both India and Saudi Arabia is also growing rapidly. The relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are very close and Pakistan’s economy which is in shambles depends on the financial assistance rendered by Riyadh. Hence General Qamar Javed Bajwa Chief of Pakistan Army and Lt. General Faiz Hameed Chief of powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) went to Saudi Arabia on 17 August to alleviate the friction generated because of the statement given by Qureshi for not calling the meeting of OIC by Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi Arabia had not replied the statement of Qureshi, but Riyadh had started showing its resentment through withdrawing the financial assistance.
Riyadh gave a very cold reception to General Bajwa and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) refused to meet him. The visiting Pakistani General was received by Saudi Chief of General Staff Major General Fayyad bin Hammad Al-Ruwaili and he could only meet with Saudi Vice Minister of Defence Khalid bin Salman. The real object of General Bajwa’s visit to Saudi Arabia was to request it not to insist on early repayment of $ 3 billion loan given by the kingdom, although Pakistan repaid $ 1 billion loan to Riyadh with the support of China. Riyadh had not extended the oil credit facility of deferred payment of $3.2 billion a year. Although the facility was expired in July and Pakistan requested to extend the facility.
Saudi Arabia rendered financial assistance to Pakistan several times. In November 2018 when Pakistan was in dire need of financial assistance Riyadh sanctioned a loan package of more than $ 6 billion. Again in 2019 Riyadh promised to invest $ 20 billion including a $ 10 billion investment in Gwadar. Riyadh also promised to set up an oil refinery and petrochemical industry at Gwadar which will have a capacity of 500,000 barrels a day. The oil would be exported to China and also to land-locked Central Asian countries from Gwadar refinery.
Riyadh took the statement of Qureshi seriously and the relations between both the countries would be affected. Nonetheless both the countries have ‘special relationship’ and despite India and Saudi Arabia are developing strong economic relationship and Pakistan has close relations with Iran but Pakistan will remain Saudi Arabia’s closest Muslim ally. In fact, Pakistan provides internal as well as external security to Saudi Arabia as well as to the ruling family.
Economically Saudi Arabia rescues Pakistan from grave economic troubles. Riyadh is the biggest supplier of petroleum products to Pakistan. Large number of Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia and their remittances are a major source of foreign currency to Pakistan. The Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia remit about $5 billion every year. In recent past several agreements were signed between both the countries which would enhance the bilateral trade, education, tourism, agriculture, information technology and communications. Riyadh also assisted Islamabad in developing trade with the members of Gulf Cooperation Council.
Besides economic relations both countries have close military relationship. Pakistan provides training, arms and ammunition to Saudi armed forces. According to reports about 70,000 Pakistan military personnel are working in the defence forces of Saudi Arabia. Pakistani pilots flew aircraft of the Saudi Air Force. Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of Pakistani arms and it purchased small and medium conventional weapons. General Raheel Sharif former Chief of Pakistan army is the chief of 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance to combat terrorism. The Islamic Military Alliance was constituted on behest of Saudi Arabia.
However, it is important to analyse why Qureshi made this statement. He is an experienced politician and the statement cannot be a slip of tongue. Pakistan watchers claim that Islamabad was trying to convene a special session of OIC on Kashmir, but Saudi Arabia and UAE have not summoned the OIC session and they issued trifling statements on Kashmir. Saudi Arabia also prevented the mention of Kashmir in Mecca Declaration of OIC. Hence Islamabad took a chance if Riyadh is pressurised because of Qureshi’s statement and convenes the special session of OIC it is fine but if Riyadh reacts adversely then Islamabad can put all blame on Qureshi.
Few members of OIC especially Iran, Turkey and Malaysia feel that OIC is completely dominated by Saudi Arabia and UAE and they have no say in the organisation. Hence, they wanted to create a new group. Iran and Turkey have strained relations with Saudi Arabia. It appears that Pakistan is also unhappy with OIC and wanted to follow Iran and Turkey. In December 2019 leaders of few Muslim countries met at Kuala Lumpur and discussed about several issues faced by Muslim countries including Islamophobia and poverty. Although the assembled leaders made it clear that they have no intention to compete with OIC, but it was a clear challenge to the leadership of Saudi Arabia. Initially Malaysia, Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan and Indonesia pioneered the summit, but later Pakistan and Indonesia did not attend the summit because of Saudi pressure. Kashmir issue was highlighted in the summit hence Pakistan may be inclined to change its allegiance.
Imran government is also upset with Saudi Arabia because of developing closeness between Riyadh and New Delhi. Besides economic relations Saudis have deported few terrorists to India which is also not liked by Pakistan as it aids and abets terrorists. Pakistan is emboldened because of financial assistance it is getting from Beijing may be under China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It is also speculated that Qureshi might be thinking to replace Imran Khan as the latter failed to resolve Pakistan’s problems and the relations between civilian government and military is becoming tense and General Bajwa may replace Imran Khan.
Pakistan which is dependent on Saudi Arabia’s largesse may surrender again to Saudis wishes but it may be a good opportunity for India to inculcate close relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as with UAE. At present India needs investments for the overall economic progress of the country while Saudi Arabia has surplus Petro dollars and may like to invest in India. Hence it may be a win-win situation for both.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)