Don’t snub the Saudis

Published: January 15, 2016


PHOTO COURTESY: SPA The writer is a consultant based in New York and is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

If he were asked to list the top three foreign policy challenges faced by Pakistan after being elected prime minister in 2013, Nawaz Sharif would not even have thought of mentioning relations with Saudi Arabia. Almost halfway through his term, however, relations with that country have managed to make headlines yet again. In 2015, it was about the war in Yemen, and in 2014, it was about the $1.5 billion ‘gift’ given by the kingdom. With tensions escalating between the Saudis and the Iranians, Pakistan’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia has become a thorn in the government’s side. While Nawaz Sharif’s personal friendship with the House of Saud limits the prime minister’s ability to distance Pakistan from the Saudis, our economic realities and foreign policy limitations make it nearly impossible for any government to snub them.

Pak-Saudi relations: Friends with benefits

Estimates suggest that over 1.5 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia, who, according to the State Bank of Pakistan, sent remittances of almost $5.6 billion in 2014. An additional $4.2 billion in remittances flowed in from the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Other countries from the GCC provided an additional inflow of $2.1 billion during the same period. These figures are important, mainly because the billions of dollars flowing in from the GCC keep Pakistan afloat. Furthermore, the opportunities provided to the millions of Pakistanis in the GCC, many of whom work as blue collar workers, enable their families to improve their socioeconomic conditions at home.

A rupture in Pakistan’s relationship will impact the ease with which migrants from Pakistan are able to find work in Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and can potentially lead to an inflow of hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers into the country. A government that has repressed its own citizens when needed, the Saudis would not hesitate to round up Pakistani workers and send them packing just to send a message across. Pakistan’s economy, already struggling to create significant job opportunities for its labour force, will struggle to rehabilitate any number of migrants coming back from the GCC. Furthermore, the decline in the inflow of remittances could ultimately create a foreign exchange crisis at home, depreciating the rupee and further constraining the economy’s ability to grow. Given this reality, Saudi Arabia has tremendous leverage that it could use against Pakistan should it feel that its long-term ally is snubbing it internationally.

Re-forging foreign policy

Regional and geopolitical realities further constrain Pakistan’s foreign policy options. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Pakistan has had distant ties with Iran. Historically, the Iranians have drawn closer to India, while Afghanistan, always fearful of Pakistan’s overbearing role, has also trusted India more. While Saudi Arabia has maintained a strategic relationship with Pakistan, it has also hedged its bets by building ties with India. In 2006, the late King Abdullah became the first Saudi monarch in decades to visit New Delhi, concluding his trip by signing a strategic energy pact. India’s then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh further cemented the ties by visiting Saudi Arabia in 2010 and signing a whole host of agreements. The relationship between the two nations became strategic in nature when the Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud visited New Delhi and signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation. Given these regional realities, an icy relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh will only draw the Saudis closer to India, ultimately leading to isolation for Pakistan, both regionally and internationally. With the Americans already distancing themselves from the region, Pakistan will only be left with one regional and international ally: China.

Finally, the domestic situation within Pakistan limits its room for manoeuvre. Not only are right-wing groups in the country rampant, they possess kinetic and non-kinetic abilities to ratchet up the pressure at home. For years these groups have been provided patronage by organisations and well-heeled individuals in the GCC. Should relations between the Saudis and Pakistan deteriorate, these groups could be used to increase local pressure on the government. Even if the Saudis were not to use this option, the groups might act on their own, viewing Islamabad’s insistence to distance itself from Saudi Arabia as a move towards drawing closer to Iran, a country that many radical groups view as an enemy. The government is already trying to normalise relations with India and Afghanistan without upsetting such groups, and the opening up of a third front could disrupt the entire strategy.

Rethinking Pak-Saudi relations

The government has made the right decision by not committing troops in the Saudi-led alliance, while agreeing on counterterrorism cooperation. Pakistan’s armed forces are already stretched thin and have been fighting a local insurgency in Fata, Balochistan and Karachi. This by itself constrains the country’s ability to provide boots on the ground to any Saudi military adventures. However, openly slighting Riyadh should be out of the question. There is no doubt about the fact that Pakistan has suffered tremendously from the follies of the past, and most of this has been a result of blindly acceding to the wishes of its allies. In the current situation, however, the only option for the government is to deft touch and manoeuvre around the crisis with nuance. Stepping on an old ally’s foot, in such a tense situation, would be ill-advised. Policymakers in Islamabad can only pray that the anger dissipates and cooler heads prevail in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 16th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • Aurengzeb
    Jan 16, 2016 - 12:37AM

    Pakistan always has some leverage over Saudi, the main one being an arsenal of Atomic Bombs. The house of Saud has made too many blunders, the country is nearing financial castrophe, there protectors the USA see them as liabilities and with the emergence of Shale Oil no longer need them.
    They were fooled into fighting the Yemenis and the Iranians are gaining influence all over the Middle East, the recent lifting of sanctions on Iran shows the West sees Iran as maybe a better partner long term.
    The only thing Pakistan should be thinking about is how it can safeguard the holy mosque when the inevitable chaos happens. Recommend

  • Feroz
    Jan 16, 2016 - 1:12AM

    Saudi Arabia will get miffed only if its wish list is not met. The summary does not tell what the wish list is, neither has the Government. Recommend

  • Rahul
    Jan 16, 2016 - 1:31AM

    With oil heading below $ 20 a barrel and foreign exchange reserves disappearing fast, the Saudis may soon have little choice but to send South Asians packing home.Recommend

  • Anon
    Jan 16, 2016 - 4:13AM

    Obviously, Pakistan should not be overtly antagonizing any countries…. however, I find this attitude towards our migrant workers troubling. Deport Pakistani workers? Let them try…. I’d like to see them function without them.

    This severe complex Pakistanis have in which they seem to think that other countries are in some way doing them some favour by allowing them to work there is unrealistic. Saudi arabia and other gulf countries profit greatly from this immigration and would face a drastic hit to themselves if they suddenly lost millions of workers. This really should not be a concern for us…

    Furthermore, we saw exactly how much clout the “right wing groups” could practice on this issue when the question of Yemen came up. It was actually surprisingly lame. It seems they need a lot of propping up to be effective.Recommend

  • IndianDude
    Jan 16, 2016 - 10:10AM

    ..Deport Pakistani workers? Let them try…. I’d like to see them function without them..

    Please do tell us what is so special about the pakistani blue colour laborer working in gulf? Except for the twisted version of Islam, the pakistani diaspora in the gulf can easily be replaced by their co-coreligionists from bangladeshis, sri lankan, indonesia etc. Gulf countries will be better off without them.Recommend

  • Muneer
    Jan 16, 2016 - 12:00PM

    Pakistan should not become a tool for furthering the interests of Saudis.Let them send a message by sending the workers back.It will be a great political and strategic blunder on their part.Recommend

  • Ch. KA Nye
    Jan 16, 2016 - 12:51PM

    The KSA would not be able to function without the cheap and compliant Pakistani labour. Who else would tolerate being treated as a slave? Who else would say “how high” when ordered to jump? Which other country would allow their country to be the nurturing ground for the house of Saud’s twisted interpretation of our wonderful religion? The list goes on and on…

    Let’s not underestimate our immense value to the KSA. They need us far more than we need them. Recommend

  • Khalid Saeed
    Jan 16, 2016 - 1:08PM

    when ever we talk about expatriates working in the gulf region, our focus is mainly on the huge remittances received by Pakistan each year sent by them. There is hardly any concern on the way they are living and the treatment they are getting from the native arabs.It is so unfortunate for any country that its citizens are forced to seek job opportunities in other countries except its own native country. Introduced by ZA Bhutto in 70´s, this has become a vital source of financial support for thousands of families in Pakistan. It has become so essential part of Pakistan economy that no politicians has a vision to find other way of strengthening economy than to export its manpower. Pakistan has been literally governed by two families, Shareef´s and Zaradari´s for the last couple of decades. Both families have built private empires in gulf states from the money sent by Pakistani expatriates. They have obviously no interest in shutting this door off as source of further building up their fortunes in future, therefore they will never bother even to think to launch a strategy where these expatriates can return home and contribute towards building up Pakistani nation in a respectable manner than living as slaves as they are doing now? Will these families ever be held accountable for what damage they have done to entire Pakistani nation? The answer is No, as long as there is no independent judiciary and it is run by honest peoples. Recommend

  • Frank
    Jan 16, 2016 - 1:12PM

    Expelling Pakistani workers in response to a Pakistani betrayal is what any country would do in Saudi Arabia’s position. We Pakistanis are everyone’s ‘friends’ and ‘brothers’ when it comes to taking their money, but when it comes to giving something back we just don’t want to know them.Recommend

  • Romm
    Jan 16, 2016 - 2:45PM

    Dude ask Behrainian Royal Family… who saved them from being overrun by Protesters during Arab Spring. Yes…. We are Pakistanis are blue blooded and you know that very well. Recommend

  • nadeem
    Jan 16, 2016 - 3:08PM

    Threat from the King via a planted piece? (cooperate, or we will throw out your citizens)Recommend

  • Asad
    Jan 16, 2016 - 3:10PM

    After the fall in oil prices, Pakistan gets the benefit of low import bill. But what will happen if Saudi and other GCC countries send back Non-resident Pakistanis (loose US$ 10 billion in remittances) working there as we are not interested to help them when they need security. Off course. we will be selling Banana on the street. There should not be a second thought, just help GCC countries and keep Pakistan out of financial trouble.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Jan 16, 2016 - 3:21PM

    The house of Saud has made too many blunders, the country is nearing financial castrophe, there protectors the USA see them as liabilities and with the emergence of Shale Oil no longer need them.
    I have a different opinion Sir, about the stregnth of the House of Saud ; they provide nourishment for the world industry and cash for muslim countries(Pakistan included) who have large armadas but cannot pay for the modern weaponry and are deliberately keeping low oil prices to deflate the. American economy and the closure of shale oil venture. I forecast a price of one dollar a barrel
    for the black tar which is flowing under the arabian sand. I also expect in the future restrictions on people who go for Haj pigrimage the seccond time..

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • Bilal
    Jan 16, 2016 - 3:44PM

    We have to make a clear distinction between the House of Saud and the holy land.

    The house of Saud is directly responsible for death and grief that has gripped ordinary Muslims across the world in form of Al-Qaeda, Daesh and to some extent the Taliban which are funded by Arab money.

    Deporting Pakistani workers from the GCC will no doubt damage Pakistan’s economy. But enabling Saudis to continue with delusions of grandeur and their designs to impose their influence in the region will be much more catastrophic.

    On the other hand, the mullahs of Iran have been making life miserable for average Syrians by supporting a brutal dictator just to maintain their sectarian influence. They have also been known to support militant sectarianism in Pakistan.

    Pakistan must stay away from this ugly game between the House of Saud and the Mullahs of Iran. Recommend

  • zafar imran
    Jan 16, 2016 - 3:52PM

    The process of Arabanisation has already started in KSA and Gulf. People are being replaced with locals but due to the expanded size of economy and level of services as expected by mainly tourists, foreign investors and even local, it is impossible to maintain such high standards without expat community. Apart from the blue color labor, there are white collar Pakistanis and Indians, especially are on key positions like project directors, CIO, managers and consultants etc and they are serving with great quality and are not replaceable.
    So it will be Recommend

  • Dr.M.M. Khan
    Jan 16, 2016 - 4:18PM

    Some countries resort to “gun boat diplomacy” others use “economic sanctions diplomacy” and yet others use “oil barrel diplomacy”. In case of KSA the last two seem to be in operation viz a viz pakistan. The kingdom is being led by a young hot headed defence minister who like his young foreign minister has no experience in international relations. The king suffers from dementia!. KSA has embarked on half backed military action in Yemen and is caught between a rock and hard surface. The Gulf council countries rely on hidden Colombian forces for their own protection. Now suddenly the KSA is putting subtle pressure on Pakistan military to get involved or else? You guess is as good as mine! Pakistan was not a privy to the KSA adventure and should desist. It has no quarrel with Iran. It’s role should be that of a mediator for peace. Some times neighbours can be more helpful than distant relatives. Pakistan cannot be blackmailed into submission by covert or overt threats. Tread carefully.Recommend

  • brar
    Jan 16, 2016 - 5:25PM

    @Anon: What a rubish thinking we all know the situation of unemployment in our countries and if Pakistanis leave the KSA Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Srilankans, Indians are there to fill the gap. Our people go there not to serve them but because we need employment had there been no unemployment in our countries no one will ever go there except for Hajj.Recommend

  • brar
    Jan 16, 2016 - 5:36PM

    @Romm: Funny who saved Behranian Royal family but failed to save their own country, hypocrates as always,Recommend

  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Jan 16, 2016 - 11:23PM

    The main problem in relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries is that while Pakistanis leaders in all sectors get very tough and act like Pharaohs with their own citizens, they are meek as lambs before the leaders of other countries and thus reduce themselves to the status not much above that of beggars.

    And having become used to seeing even top Pakistani leadership in that subservient role, the foreign rulers get shocked and annoyed when Pakistani leaders put up even a little bit of resistance to their demands. Just how the UAE minister had reacted to the refusal of Pakistan to send forces to fight in Yemen is a clear proof of this, if a proof was required.

    Also, as compared to us, Egypt depends on Saudi Arabia much more than us. First of all, large number of Egyptians work there. Moreover, when after overthrowing democratically elected Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s military dictator Abdel Fatah el-Sisi was in a mess, these were Saudi and Gulf rulers who bailed him out with a US$ 10 billion aid package.

    And Saudi Arabia has recently offered him another 30 billion Saudi Riyal in aid which approximates to US $ 7.5 billion. And even after taking all this aid, as well as other favours, Egyptian dictator does not behave before the Saudi Royals in a beggarly fashion like Pakistani leaders do.

    So, in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf rulers, , any problem that arises is basically of Pakistan origin.

    However, the writer is right to suggest to Pakistani leadership “Don’t snub the Saudis”, because having set a behaviour-pattern before Saudis and other Gulf rulers, any sudden deviation by Pakistani leadership would not be acceptable to them, and may cause grave problems for Pakistanis.

    And mind you, Indians and others can easily replace Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries.

    We just heard that Prime Minister Nawazx Sharif and army chief Raheel Sharif will be visiting Saudi Arabia as well as Iran. Hopefully, they would mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran and try to end this needless rivalry which has done, and is still doing great harm to the Ummah, including Pakistan of course. Being the strongest militarily, and the only nuclear power in the Muslim world, this is the sort of role they should have been playing which befits their status. Pakistan is even in a position where it could guarantee the territorial integrity of the Muslim states and thus help remove the fear-based hostility that they feel towards each other.

    Let us hope Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif prove by their words and deeds that they rightly deserve to be the leaders of a country of over two hundred million people.


  • Aurengzeb
    Jan 16, 2016 - 11:54PM

    @Rex Minor “…and are deliberately keeping low oil prices to deflate the. American economy and the closure of shale oil venture. I forecast a price of one dollar a barrel”
    Another blunder by the House of Saud, the country will be bankrupt well before it reaches $1 a dollar a barrel. With a budget deficit of $98 billion and rising its not looking good.Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jan 17, 2016 - 1:41AM

    ….but America has already done that. Now its an exercise of soothing bloated ego’s so that sense prevails, all around.Recommend

  • shahid
    Jan 17, 2016 - 2:22AM

    We are shooting on our own legs. We always promised Saudis that we will sacrificed our lives for them and now for some un knowm strange reason we have turned around 180 degrees within months. We kept on lieing to them and suddenly we are showing our back to them. Iran is blatantly interfering in other countries and its soldiers are actively fighting in Syria to protect a Dracula a dictator who is drinkingi ts own people blood. Saudia has 750 billions in Reserves Request them fifty billions to meet all our dams and other projects and support them fully. We don’t need to fight with Iran but we can’t be a spectator while Iran is sending its army to interfere in Sunni countriesRecommend

  • Rex Minor
    Jan 17, 2016 - 3:20PM

    With a budget deficit of $98 billion and rising its not looking good.

    You have not the information Sir, on the Saudi wealth, a trillion dollars the great America owes them and many trillions of assets in the west and the holy land has more assets in minerals than any other country in the world. The house of Saud has new mangement whose policies appear to be volatile and revolutionary in the initial phase but will definitely be no longer the same as those of earlier Royals.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • DilliNiwasi
    Jan 17, 2016 - 10:00PM

    You have considered only what Pakistan wishes not its constraints and weaknesses which the author has nicely brought out. Pakistan has so many weaknesses predominantly internal instability because it let these mad religious groups take foot hold in last 7 decades that now in real terms, it does not have any sovernigity left! It has to do what China and Saudi demand. US has not even started making demands which it can because Pakistan owes it (or world institutions funded by it) some 50 or more billion dollars….Pakistan is not free to make its choices…all it an do is firefight and delay the inevitable or save face by offering inducements.
    Pakistan did not have any financial planning in place (thanks to army demands and politicians loot) so it has been banking on its expatriates flow of petrodollars/dollars which can dry up any time. Even with those dollars coming in, Pakistan was living a hand to mouth existence, now one an only imagine what will happen if those sources dry up !!Recommend

  • observer
    Jan 18, 2016 - 10:20PM

    Not only are right-wing groups in the country rampant, they possess kinetic and non-kinetic abilities to ratchet up the pressure at home. For years these groups have been provided patronage by organisations and well-heeled individuals in the GCC. Should relations between the Saudis and Pakistan deteriorate, these groups could be used to increase local pressure on the government.

    To paraphrase this,

    A. There are ‘right wing’ groups in Pakistan.

    B. These groups have the ability to arm twist the state.

    C. These groups receive patronage from GCC.

    D. These groups can create mayhem if Pakistan does not tow the Saudi line.

    This is a startlingly honest confession.
    RIP RAW/MOSAD/CIA conspiracy.Recommend

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