There is no crisis in Islamabad and Riyadh, but something serious is apparently going on between the two governments.
On July 16, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah held two major meetings in Jeddah — one with US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who has President Barack Obama’s ear on foreign policy, and the other with Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the lame duck newbie whose tenure is tenuous and very temporary.
In his snubbing of President Asif Ali Zardari for three years, the Saudi monarch has made it clear that he can be quite selective about those he meets. So his holding of talks with Ashraf looks a bit odd. ‘Why Raja Rental?’ one might ask.
The meeting, which is said to have gone on longer than scheduled, was also attended by three leading Saudi national security officials, including the foreign minister and intelligence chief (who previously was the Saudi envoy to Islamabad). Interpreting for Abdullah and Ashraf was none other than Adel al-Jubeir, who is not only the Saudi ambassador to the US but is also a chief adviser to Abdullah. Al-Jubeir’s proximity to Abdullah is such that he is said to often fly to Saudi Arabia twice a week to counsel the octogenarian leader. And al-Jubeir, if you recall, once unabashedly said: “We, in Saudi Arabia, are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants.”
Given the energy crisis in Pakistan and Ashraf’s less-than-stellar record as water and power minister, official statements from Islamabad emphasised progress in bilateral energy cooperation. But the composition of the Saudi contingent suggests that the focus was on intelligence and security issues. Strangely, Ashraf was accompanied by his religious affairs minister and ambassador to Riyadh. The Pakistani delegation’s makeup did not correspond to that of their Saudi counterparts, which might mean that the meeting was impromptu and not planned in advance. It’s quite possible that Ashraf went to get another energy bailout, while the Saudis were keen on talking about other issues that mattered more to them.
Among those issues are Pakistan-India relations. Abdullah is said to have inquired about the state of normalisation talks between Pakistan and India. It’s likely that Saudi officials went into some detail regarding their government’s extradition of alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative Abu Jundal to India. Abu Jundal has reportedly pointed towards ISI involvement in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Despite their recent moves, the Saudis are not turning on Pakistan. They cannot and they will not in the short to midterm future. The Pakistan-Saudi Arabia partnership is the closest between any two countries that don’t have a formal treaty agreement, says former Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal. It’s a deeply-rooted security partnership whose importance has grown as Riyadh-Tehran tensions rise and sectarian uncertainty increases in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which is why Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with President Zardari in Islamabad last year. And the Saudis most certainly will want to cooperate with Pakistan to keep a check on al Qaeda and stave off the Iranians and those can-do Qataris in Afghanistan. In extraditing Abu Jundal, Riyadh is probably responding to pressure from Washington, which sees the LeT as a group that not only killed Americans in Mumbai, but is also a potential threat beyond the subcontinent.
Still, Pakistani decision-makers should recognise that no bilateral partnership is permanent and shifts can be as impactful as all-out rifts. Ties with Riyadh will be indirectly shaped by Saudi Arabia’s eastward economic push. Since 2006, the Saudis have been expanding economic ties with China and India. By 2010, annual Indo-Saudi trade grew to $25 billion. Saudi Arabia now exports more oil to China than the US. India is its fourth largest oil export market.
Trade between Saudi Arabia and India is going beyond oil. Pakistan must look to forge a strategic economic partnership with Saudi Arabia, which has a sovereign wealth fund of nearly half a trillion dollars. It can't simply be about bartering military cooperation or food for cheaper oil. The Saudis can make sizable profits in Pakistani commercial real estate, education, infrastructure, information technology and public transportation projects. But for them to do so requires Pakistan’s leaders to think outside the box before they get boxed in.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2012.