Will Pakistan-Saudi relations survive Yemen crisis?

Ceciel Shiraz Raj will provide MO* with a weekly analysis of the trends shaping Pakistan. He reads the vociferous media in his country and boils all the screaming headlines down to what really matters. The life and tmes of a Hard Country, as Anatol Lieven called Pakistan.

Despite no official declaration of any specific understanding regarding Yemen conflict, the recent visit to Saudi Arabia by highest level Pakistani delegation seems to have succeeded in removing strains in bilateral relations. The general opinion in Pakistan termed this development a moral success as Pakistan has maintained its independent position without losing a trusted friend. Reaching London on April 25, PM Sharif told the media that Saudis had exerted no pressure and given no ‘wish list’.

This statement, however, contradicted the officilal briefing of the Defence Minister, Khawaja Asif on April 5, at the outset of marathan joint session of the parliament. He informed the house that Saudis have demanded air force, military and navy support and blockage of Iranian ships carrying arms to rebel Houthis of Yemen. The across the board, categorical refusal through a 12 point unanimous resolution came after fiery and sarcastic speeches.

The main arguments included

  • that Pakistan is committed to the protection of the security of Saudi homeland, especially the holy places of Islam
  • that there is no immediate threat to Saudi security
  • that a nuclear Pakistan should act as responsible mediator
  • that it is a sectarian proxy war against Iran supported by Israel
  • that Pakistan’s involvement in this conflict shall start another sectarian proxy war within Pakistan.

The collective argument clearly favored Iran over Saudi Arabia.

The Iran-US Nuclear deal 

The Pakistani media strongly welcomed the outcome of negotiations between Iran and P5+1. The Nawa e Waqt editorial (April 4) wrote, ‘Pakistani is being hit by the USA sanctions on Iran. The gas pipeline deadline had ended on December 2014 but Iran graciously gave 2 years time for its completion. Now, we can hope that this pipeline shall be completed soon.’ Seasoned foreign issues analyst, Talat Masood (daily Express Tribune, April 8) wrote, ‘In fact, the broader picture of Iran’s position as a regional power will change dramatically as shackles of sanctions are gone. Iran’s economy will get a real boost as Iran is allowed to export its oil without any restrictions and foreign investment that had practically ceased should be more forthcoming.’

‘…the lifting of US sanctions on Iran as a result of the nuclear deal opens up a way for the energy-starved Pakistan to fulfil its soaring energy demands by importing gas from Iran…’

According to another columnist (April 8), ‘Finally, the lifting of US sanctions on Iran as a result of the nuclear deal opens up a way for the energy-starved Pakistan to fulfil its soaring energy demands by importing gas from Iran, which is the quickest and cheapest way of overcoming the chronic energy crisis in our country. If Pakistan joins the Saudi coalition, as per the 2012 Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline agreement, Iran can use the option of imposing penalties on Pakistan.’

The subsequent visit by the Iran foreign minister Jawad Zarif (April 8) with 22 member high ranking delegation further broke the ice and helped Pakistani decision makers/opinion makers realize that Iran can play major role as a strong and integrated neighbor of Pakistan. ‘With a framework for a nuclear deal in place and with signs of rapprochement between Iran and the international community, now is the time to re-energise the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.’, wrote The Dawn editorial on April 6.

The Pakistani media reported with amusement that China shall pay the $ 2 billion for the construction of the said gas pipeline at the Pakistani side and that the agreement shall be signed during the Chines president Xi Jinping visit to Islamabad in April.

The counter diplomacy by Saudis

Many media commentators and analysts, however, argued that Pakistan should not forget the unending kindness and historic friendship of Saudis. It was King Faisal who played historical role at the time of Dhaka debacle (1971) when 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were strained in Bangla Desh.  Saudi Arabia bailed out Pakistan by giving free oil worth $ 2 billion, at the time of international sanctions after Nuclear explosions on May 28, 1998. And Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have fought shoulder to shoulder against USSR in Afghanistan.

‘It was Saudi crown prince who persuaded President Clinton to meet Nawaz Sharif and mediate a respected wayout from Kargil abyss’, wrote Arshad Ahmed Arif in Daily Nawa e Waqt on April 8. Many columnists mentioned recent Saudi gift of $1.5 billion.  

UAE minister, Dr. Anwer Mehmood Gargash saidthat Pakistan will have to pay a ‘heavy price’ for its ‘ambigious stand’.

Immediately after the resolution, and its unanimous endorsment by the Pakistani media, the direct and indirect reaction by KSA started appearing in body politics of Pakistan. Jamaat e Alhe Hadith held a conference and Jamat ul Dawa organized a rally denouncing the resolution. The visit of Saudi Minister for Religious Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Abdullah on April 13 conveyed some clear messages to the Pakistani establishment. His interviewer at Geo Television, Haffaz ur Rehman wrote two articles in daily Jang (April 15-16) explaining how angry he was especially on ‘the central figure of government’.

Meanwhile on April 11, Pakistan media reported threatening reaction by UAE minister, Dr. Anwer Mehmood Gargash saying that Pakistan will have to pay ‘heavy price’ for its ‘ambigious stand’. Under immense pressure, government sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia headed by Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif to explain the ‘true meanings’ of the resolution. Meanwhile, Pakistan very loudly announced that it will fully abide by the UN resolution of April 13 imposing arms ambargo on Houthis.    

Commenting on the London statement by PM Sharif, the Jang editorial (April 26) wrote, ‘The toppling of legitimate goverment of Mansoor ul Hadi sowed the seeds of conflict and division. It is a conspiracy not only to divide Yemen but also to throw entire region in the constant fire of war and violence’.

The Nawa-e-Waqt wrote, ‘The Americal fleet sent after UN resolution is armed with new aircrafts and misiles. It is the start of a huge conspiracy. It will create more threats for KSA’, claimed the editorial while explaining how Americans were nervous on the fact that KSA demanded help from Pakistan instead of USA. Another Urdu editorial celebrated the fact that the visit has resulted in the decision to increase security cooperation, which is a great development in order to remove the Saudi reservations about Pakistani decision on Yemen conflict.

The Dawn editorial wrote, ‘the Saudi regime is notoriously secretive and opaque while the Pakistani leadership often only offers anodyne statements in matters of foreign policy, so it is hardly a surprise that little insight into Thursday’s meetings in Riyadh with the apex of the Saudi leadership has been offered by either. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia agreed to further expand the existing defence, security and intelligence cooperation,” the statement read in part. Therein may lie either the seeds of recovery for the bilateral relationship or a crisis further down the road.’

The News Editorial wrote on April 26, ‘With this visit going well, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia seem to be resuming a normal line of close friendship. While Pakistan seems set to resume a relationship with Riyadh that had for a short time appeared to be in trouble, Riyadh is apparently doing its own bid by delivering key messages which could help bring about the kind of peace that is Pakistan’s most important need’.

Is Kingdom of Saudi Arabia fanning sectarian strife ?  

Writing in The Nation (April 7), famous columnist and human rights activist, Marvi Sirmed wrote, ‘As per media reports, Pakistanis have been fighting in Bahrain already in the last few years. Since the oppressive Sunni regime has been using them against the Shia populace, they bring home a lot of anti-Shia extremism. The carnage in the imambargahs of Shikarpur, Islamabad and Peshawar did not result in the same outrage as, for example, the Peshawar school attack.’

‘Any sectarian rift in Pakistan will provide an ideal opening to the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups in the region to exploit our sectarian fault lines to gain a foothold in the country.’

According to Abdul Basit in Daily Tribune (April 8), ‘Any sectarian rift in Pakistan will provide an ideal opening to the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups in the region to exploit our sectarian fault lines to gain a foothold in the country.’ Writing in The Dawn (April 5), leading security expert and director of Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), Mohammad Amir Rana wrote, ‘the psychological impact of the Yemen crisis can provide relief to the terrorists and ease the pressure of military operations. New militant forces like IS can also get a chance to expand their influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.’

The ANP central leader and human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, Afrasiab Khattak wrote in The Nation on April 25, ‘All friendly countries should know that the exporting of toxic extremist ideologies to Pakistan through investing petrodollars in seminaries will not be a friendly act. Last but not least, Saudi Arabia and Iran should be told clearly that Pakistan will not allow them to fight their proxy sectarian wars on its soil. That is an important external dimension of the war on terror in our country.’

The same day, famous physicist and political analyst, Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote in Dawn, ‘we need to be deeply concerned with Saudi Arabia deliberately fomenting extremism within Pakistan, leading to horrific consequences. Across the country, madressahs and mullahs receive Saudi funding and spread sectarian poisons.’

The China factor   

On April 26, Pakistan Today reported that China has signed an initial agreement to construct the pipeline from Gwadar to Nawabshah in the southwest of Pakistan, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan. Gwadar is also the starting point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Wall Street Journal had earlier reported the China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau, a subsidiary of Chinese energy giant China National Petroleum Corporation, will build the 700 km pipeline to Nawabshah, which is Pakistan’s gas-distribution center in the Sindh province.

‘What really helped Pakistan weather the storm was a Chines assurance of economic investment and assistance to the tune no Arab country —let alone Saudi Arabia—could match’

The Express Tribune published a story by Kamran Yusaf on April 27 telling the inside story of China factor in Pakistan’s refusal to Saudi Arabia. Quoting unnamed officials, he said, ‘what really helped Pakistan weather the storm was a Chines assurance of economic investment and assistance to the tune no Arab country —let alone Saudi Arabia—could match, said one official.’ The news item tells, ‘According to officials, President Xi assured Pakistan that his country would stand behind Islamabad in the event of unraveling of its ties with the Arab world.’

‘An unusual warning from the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs of a ‘heavy price’ Pakistan might have to pay for not joining the military coalition against the Houthis was a clear sign that the Arab rulers were unhappy with Pakistani parliament’s decision. The officials said Saudi Arabia privately conveyed not only its annoyance but also the possible consequences’ according to the report that informed, ‘the Chinese leader even suggested that if Islamabad maintained unity in their ranks and implemented the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, then it would not have to look up to outside help either from the West or Arab countries.

“There were other factors too but the assurance and friendly advice from the Chinese president really helped us to face the blowback of the parliamentary decision,” said another official, as reported by the paper.

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