After Pakistani parliament regretted participation in the multinational, armed operation against foreign-backed Houthi militias in Yemen last year, many speculated this would cause irrevocable damage to Pak-Saudi relations. However, with Pakistan’s inclusion in the Saudi-led anti-terror alliance fears subsided and have completely evaporated with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel bin Ahmed al Jubeir’s recent visit to Islamabad on Thursday.
As for the 34-nation alliance, Riyadh has not sought Islamabad’s military assets yet and seems to be working to evolve a coalition of the likeminded against extremists and terrorist. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have always reiterated that threat to sovereignty of one will be deemed as danger to the other and the reason why this alliance is unshakable is because the two nations have a lot to gain by standing together.
A history of goodwill
Unlike what appears in news columns and social media campaigns, Islamabad-Riyadh relations neither started after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan nor were a knee-jerk reaction to Iran’s blood-soaked revolution. Similarly, the nature of bilateral relations is not dictated by the richer or more powerful partner.
Historically, it was in April 1940 when the crown prince Saud bin Abdul Aziz visited Karachi and was warmly welcomed by leaders of the Muslim League, including MAH Ispahani, MA Maniar and Karim Bhai Ibrahim, that laid the foundation of Pak-Saudi relations. The Crown Prince was accompanied by a large delegation, including his five brothers, Faisal, Saad, Fahd, Mansoor and Abdullah. There is, however, no public record of the dignitaries’ meeting with Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
But when Bengal suffered severe famine in 1943, Saudis responded to Jinnah’s appeal for humanitarian assistance. King Abdul Aziz sent the first foreign donation amounting to £10,000. In 1946, Jinnah sent the Pakistan movement delegation led by Mirza Abol Hasan Ispahani, including Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz, to the United Nations. While the Indian National Congress team was obstructing Muslim League envoys’ engagements, Prince Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz, who was leading the Saudi delegation, came to their rescue. Saudi Arabia invited Ispahani and his colleagues to the official reception in honour of all other UN delegations at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Prince Faisal then introduced the Pakistan Movement members to other delegates, where they explained their struggle for a separate homeland.
After the creation of Pakistan, Arab merchants settled in Mumbai and Calcutta migrated to Pakistan, especially Karachi. In 1954, King Saud took Karachi – then the capital of Pakistan – by storm naming Saudabad town in his name after he laid the foundation stone for the housing scheme. King Faisal was equally revered by the Pakistanis with the government naming a key Karachi artery, Shahrah-e-Faisal, a vital airbase after him. Lyallpur, a city in central Punjab, was also named in his honour. This was a major success of Saudi’s formal and public diplomacy in a non-Arabic speaking Muslim nation.
It was three years after the 1965 war when Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the then Saudi Minister of Defence and Aviation, visited Pakistan that a bilateral defence cooperation protocol was formalised.
During the 1970s, Saudi leadership responded to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s request for financial assistance in order to respond to India’s nuclear ambitions after the first Pokhran test. An unnamed official was quoted by the press saying Bhutto could solicit $500 million, valued at about $2.5 billion today, from Arab friends. After Saudi Arabia, Libya was the other key supporter of Pakistan’s deterrence capability.
Over a decade later, in 1982, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia signed another military protocol, which entitles the kingdom to seek Pakistani troops. But like most defence agreements (including the one signed between India and Iran in 2002), the details of Islamabad-Riyadh military pacts have been closely guarded.
A profitable partnership
After the western sanction following 1998 nuclear tests, Saudi Arabia provided 50,000 barrels of oil per day to Pakistan for a year; amounting to about one-sixth of Pakistan’s total oil imports on deferred payment. Later, the Saudis branded the outstanding payment as a gift in times of need. Furthermore, over two million Pakistanis employed in Saudi Arabia send home remittances amounting to nearly four billion annually. The kingdom is the largest market of the Pakistani manpower worldwide, with its embassy in Islamabad issuing 30,000 visas every month.
It has never been a one-way relationship though. Pakistan has always stood by the Arab nation in times of war and peace and they have always reciprocated in kind. Riyadh recently turned down Indian premier Modi’s proposal for a defence pact when he last visited the kingdom. The recent visit by Saudi Foreign Minister shows that Riyadh has understood Pakistani constraint of sending troops to another Muslim country. Islamabad, on the other hand, can never afford to lose strategic, time-tested allies, which are already not many.
Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360