ALL-WEATHER FRIENDSHIP

Saudi Arabia 2018-19 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: SAUDI ARABIA-PAKISTAN RELATIONS

The Saudi-Pakistan relationship is old, deep, and consequential, and although it has taken some dips in recent years, both countries continue to see it as their most important bilateral partnership.

The former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal once described relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty.” Pakistan's current foreign policy terms its relationship with Saudi Arabia as its “most important bilateral partnership.”

Although the beginning of relations between the two Muslim countries was based on Islamic ideology, the decades-old alliance has evolved to operate on many levels and in many areas, including security, culture, trade, governance, education, politics, and health. Both countries also work extensively within the framework of numerous regional, bilateral, and global organizations, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

In terms of trade, Saudi Arabia is the biggest exporter of oil and petroleum products to Pakistan, whereas the Kingdom has been a key market for Pakistani goods, such as rice, meat, fruit, home textile products, chemicals, and leather goods. In 2017, Saudi Arabia's exports to Pakistan totaled USD2.73 billion while the Kingdom's imports from Pakistan were understandably lower at USD334.5 million because of the different categories of products traded. Notably, Saudi Arabia is home to more than 2.7 million Pakistanis, who make up the biggest source of remittances to Pakistan. Although the flow of remittances from Saudi Arabia has slowed down due to new labor laws, the Kingdom still leads the charts with USD5.8 billion out of the USD19.3-billion total remittances sent to Pakistan in FY2016-17.

A glimpse at history shows that it is not trade but military and security that form the forte of Pakistan-Saudi ties, the mettle of which has been tested in troubling times over several decades. In 1969, Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets to counter Yemen's infiltrations into Saudi Arabia. Later in the 1980s, both countries coordinated support for the mujahideen in the war against Afghanistan's Soviet occupation. Throughout the decade, the Pakistani army stationed at least 15,000 troops in the Kingdom. Also, during the first Gulf War, Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia to thwart any attack from Saddam Hussein. Similarly, Pakistan posted around 13,000 troops and 6,000 advisors in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.

Likewise, when trouble came knocking on Pakistan's doors in the form of sanctions for conducting nuclear missile tests in 1998, Saudi Arabia provided financial support and donated oil supplies to Pakistan. Equally important, Saudi Arabia has always provided staunch support during Pakistan's wars with India and for a peaceful solution to the Kashmir dispute.

Of course, there have been events and incidents where the two have fallen into disagreements, more so in recent times as both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continue to deal with issues at home, forcing the brotherly countries to prioritize their own national interests. One such development is Riyadh and New Delhi, Pakistan's arch rival, broadening the scope of their relationship from energy to infrastructure development, trade, and defense.

However, Pakistan has no reason to worry. While India-Saudi ties are primarily driven by economics and the Kingdom's Vision 2030, the Riyadh-Islamabad relationship is a strategic one based on decades-old shared values and geopolitical interests. And although the relationship has taken a few hits in recent times—including Pakistan refusing to send troops to Yemen to help oust the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia withdrawing its support when the Financial Action Task Force pushed a resolution to place Pakistan on terror-financing watch list, and Pakistan strengthening its ties with Iran, these are mere instances where both countries have looked outside their traditional partnership to advance certain national interests.

The relations remain as strong as ever: General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's former Army Chief was appointed as the head of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counterterrorism Alliance in 2017; and more recently, as Pakistan's newly elected government attempts to avoid an IMF bailout and restore the country's dangerously low foreign currency reserves, the Saudi-backed Islamic Development Bank has offered a USD4-billion loan.