Sept. 4, 2020, 2:28 p.m.
Islamabad: Last month, the ‘brotherly’ relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia-built on close economic, political, and military partnerships for decades-hit a huge speed bump.
Unconfirmed reports are emerging that Saudi Arabia is ‘keen’ and ‘advising’ Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to replace Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan with former army chief General Raheel Sharief who, is, at present the commander of the Riyadh-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT).
According to experts in Pakistan, the latest spat between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should be seen in the broader context of recent strategic realignments in the Middle East and the Muslim world.
For some time, Pakistan has been struggling to keep to its traditional policy of maintaining neutral relations with rival Muslim powers. While Islamabad is concerned about the deepening strategic and economic cooperation between its arch-rival India and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is equally frustrated by Pakistan’s overtures towards Muslim-majority states it views as hostile, such as Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Qatar. In other words, the House of Saud is miffed at Pakistan’s attempt to undermine Riyadh’s leadership of the Muslim world.
The acrimony between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia spilled into open last month when Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quereshi openly threatened the Saudi led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to either call a ministerial meeting on Kashmir or his government would hold its own meeting with a parallel coterie of Islamic countries.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia was not amused. His angst also spilled into the open when Saudi Arabia abruptly ended a $6.2 billion loan and oil supply deal to Pakistan over the criticism, allegedly forcing Islamabad to repay $1 billion that had already been disbursed. Since then, the Pakistan-Saudi relationship is in free fall.
According to the Middle East commentator Ali Shihabi, “The Pakistani elite have a bad habit of taking support for granted given what Saudi Arabia has done for Pakistan over the decades. Well, the party is over and Pakistan needs to deliver value to this relationship. It is no longer a free lunch or a one way street.”
Since the Saudi-Pakistan relationship is primarily handled directly by the Pakistan Army and the Saudi King and Crown Prince, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Bajwa rushed to Riyadh on August 17. But that mission misfired as Prince Salman refused to grant him an audience. Since then rumors are swirling that Raheel Sharif and Bajwa are in touch with Saudi Arabia to placate the miffed Saudi leadership.
The Pakistan Army’s intervention affirms the hard facts that Pakistan can’t afford to alienate the kingdom. Then why did Qureshi engage in anti-Saudi rhetoric that was unsustainable? That’s where Pakistan’s mercurial Prime Minister Imran Khan comes in. According to Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Alam, “these days, Imran Khan’s role model is the hero of a Turkish drama Ertugrul. He got PTV to buy a license and broadcast an Urdu version of the serial, without realizing that many friendly countries in the Gulf, have banned the serial”.
Imran is a big fan of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No wonder, he frequently talks about Pakistan’s forthcoming grand role in a China-Turkey-Iran-Pakistan alliance that is destined to defeat US-Israel-India partnership. The cricketer-turned-politician has encouraged Pakistanis to watch his favourite Turkish drama, supposedly based on the life of the father of the Ottoman dynasty’s founder, Osman.
The show portrays its hero as a great Muslim warrior who overcomes external enemies and domestic traitors to emerge victorious in an early phase of what Erdogan once described as the ongoing struggle between “the Crescent and the Cross”. It seems that Khan shares Erdogan’s vision, with the additional twist of putting Pakistan in a more important role in bringing down the West in addition to winning its own battles against India.
Even as Pakistan is reeling under the impact of strained ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE-Israel peace deal has further increased Khan’s frustration and dilemma further as India’s strategic partnership with Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE have become major pillars of New Delhi’s relationship with the West Asian region. This partnership will be strengthened further. Muslim countries, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the lead-as in the case of China’s ruthless crackdown on Turkic Muslims-have been reluctant to jeopardize their growing economic and military ties to India, effectively hanging Pakistan out to dry.
However, Khan has been playing down the rift with Saudi Arabia. In an interview to a Pakistani channel, Khan says, “Our relations with Saudi Arabia are very good, we are constantly in touch.” So is the Pakistani military establishment.
According to Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi: “A winter of discontent is approaching. Pakistan’s military establishment has given Imran Khan until the new year to get his act together, or else. It simply cannot afford any longer to stake its own credibility and reputation on a failing government that has impoverished both economy and politics. Sensing that the time is fast approaching for a confrontation, both opposition and government are girding up their loins for the coming heave-ho.”