Saudi Arabia, has long held sway in Pakistan's internal affairs but Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised a "New Pakistan". Will this apply to its relationship with Saudi Arabia?
The term Allah, Army and America refers to the three main pillars of Pakistan’s state of affairs since its independence in 1947.
Leading academics and experts on Pakistan have referred to these three A’s as being crucial to understanding how Pakistan functions. The key glue that holds the three A’s has always been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has enjoyed an unparalleled and unique relationship with Pakistan—and in the words of the former head of Saudi Intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal—the two countries enjoy "probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty".
This relationship, however, has not always been a balanced one, it could be argued that the Saudis have more influence in Pakistan, than even many local politicians. The current Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel el Jubeir, is on record as saying whilst serving as Ambassador to the US, that Saudi Arabia is not just an observer but an actual participant in Pakistani affairs.
Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan has just completed his first overseas trip, and it was to the Kingdom. There is anticipation that Imran Khan who is devoid of foreign patronage, unlike his predecessors, could forge a meaningful relationship with the Saudis, but how realistic is this given the army’s own commitments to the Saudis?
It is a well established fact the degree of authority and leeway Saudis enjoy in Pakistan – whether it be illegal hunting of rare birds, decades long funding of extremist madrassas and indeed the critical issue of an alleged Pakistani nuclear umbrella for Saudi Arabia.
There is no direct evidence to suggest that Pakistan would ever transfer their nuclear assets to Saudi Arabia for any sort of use.
However this has not stopped international speculation that Saudi Arabia for all practical purposes has the Pakistani bomb as an insurance against a potentially nuclear Iran.
Former Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdelaziz is the only foreigner ever to visit a Pakistani nuclear site in 1999, a privilege not even accorded to a civilian prime minister of Pakistan. However Pakistani military and civilian officials regularly cite Saudi security as paramount and equal to the defence of Pakistan itself.
The appointment of former Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif as the head of the Saudi funded Islamic military alliance has also raised many eyebrows and legal questions within Pakistan for the last two years.
Former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif’s personal relationship with the Saudis has also been questioned, and his release yesterday from prison led to rumours of a deal given the coincidental timing of Imran Khan’s visit to Riyadh. The Imran Khan government had to issue a denial delinking the Saudi visit and Nawaz Sharif's release.
Whatever the truth as to the nature of Saudi Arabia’s political involvement in Pakistan and their personal relationships, it makes the government in Islamabad nervous.
Whether it is Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan – they all have to make clarifications one way or the other either to defend Saudi Arabia or to distance themselves from what are perceived as back-room dealings that puts Saudi interests before Pakistan.
Despite all the hype of a ‘Pakistan First’ foreign policy, and an initial public statement that Imran Khan would not go on overseas tour during his first three months in office – the new Information Minister, Fawad Chaudry, fresh after the Saudi trip was back to the usual line of his predecessors in saying, that "Pakistan would continue to provide security to their (Saudi) country".
It seems the two year outreach by the Pakistan Army to Iran could fall apart given Saudi insistence on exclusivity. The Saudi press, led by the most senior editors has been very clear that Imran Khan and Pakistan must choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This follows constant pressure denouncing Pakistan for not helping Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and also questioning the strategic partnership between the two countries. This was confirmed by Imran Khan's government, in the same press conference when Fawad Chuadry admitted that relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had not been stable for a few years and that Khan had put them right on this trip.
This begs the question, can Imran Khan do anything differently from his predecessors?
Anything new for Khan to do?
Imran Khan's early weeks in power were spent giving grand statements on how Pakistan would be the mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He accepted President Rouhani’s invitation to travel to Tehran, and made high profile meetings with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javed Zarif and the Iranian Ambassador.
One thing does separate Khan from his predecessors; he is making public and bold statements in favour of Iran. Even though he has not been able to do away with the Saudi first approach, he could be in a good position to convince the Saudis that it is not a zero-sum game.
Given Saudi-Iranian tensions and an outright battle to control the Middle East, there is very little Imran Khan can do to solve this.
Previously, the Saudi Foreign Minister had out right dismissed the need for Pakistan to mediate with Iran. At the same time rather than fix the Iran-Saudi mess, Khan's main concern should be to alleviate the suffering of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia. Khan made no mention of this during his trip.
It is for this reason Saudi Arabia has always treated Pakistani politicians with contempt – WikiLeaks proved that the Saudi leadership preferred military rule in Pakistan as a better option to corrupt and weak politicians.
Away from the covert cable leaks, senior Saudi princes such as Prince Turki bin Faisal have been clear in mocking Pakistani politicians, and suggesting that if they did their jobs properly the Army would not intervene in the first place.
On his first trip to Saudi Arabia, Imran Khan has definitely made an impact and invited them to join Pakistan’s flagship economic project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Saudi press were full of praise for Khan and his reenergising of the strategic relationship.
It is far too early to make a judgement on how Khan shall deal with Saudi Arabia, but one thing is for sure, Saudi Arabia will remain a major force in every aspect of Pakistani affairs.
This was best summed up by Imran Khan himself on his first official visit, "anyone who comes to power in Pakistan will visit Saudi Arabia first".
It seems from Khan's first overseas trip, at least for now – Pakistan will continue its ‘Saudi First’ policy.
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