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Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in crisis

By Lucas Leiroz | September 17, 2020

In early August, the diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia increased considerably when Pakistani Chancellor Shah Mehmood Qureshi officially criticized the Arab country for its lack of support for Islamabad’s interests in the dispute with India over Kashmir. According to the Pakistani government, there should be greater cooperation between both countries due to the fact that they share religious ties, and this is not happening.

Qureshi recently said during an interview that Islamabad expects the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to convene a meeting soon to discuss the issue of Kashmir. Furthermore, he said that if the OIC does not convene such a meeting, Pakistan itself will be obliged to organize a meeting of Islamic countries in order to obtain support in the dispute for Kashmir. Qureshi’s words were immediately received by the Saudis as a threat of conspiracy against the OIC for the creation of a new bloc, led by Islamabad.

There are three countries that unconditionally support Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, which are Turkey, Iran and Malaysia. These countries, in December 2019, met at the Kuala Lumpur Summit, where they discussed various topics related to the entire Islamic world. Since then, Saudi Arabia sees the alliance of these countries as a threat to its interests and to the role of hegemony it exercises over the OIC. So, if Pakistan convenes a meeting with such countries, a major step will be taken towards the creation of a new group of Islamic nations.

Qureshi’s comment was made to warn the Saudis, but the consequences were disastrous. Riyadh immediately refused to give a third of the 3 billion dollars loan it had granted Pakistan in 2018, and the 3.2 billion dollars oil credit line that was also part of the 2018 deal has not been renewed.

Until now, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have shared close ties, forming an important alliance in Asian geopolitics. Both countries have shared strategic ties of mutual interest for decades and on several occasions have supported each other diplomatically, economically and militarily. Examples of this shared interest can be seen in events such as the placement of Pakistani troops in the Saudi territory, joint military exercises, oil supply by Saudi Arabia amid sanctions on Pakistan due to its nuclear tests and several other cases of economic aid and diplomatic support.

But, occasionally, the interests of both countries have collided. There were reprisals after Pakistan’s refusal to send troops within the Saudi-led coalition in the 2015 Yemen war, for example. Interestingly, in Yemen Iran and Saudi Arabia face each other in a proxy war. Iran supports Pakistan in Kashmir, while the Saudis hesitate on this issue. Certainly, the cases are related, but that is not enough to explain the current crisis.

The geopolitics of the Islamic world is changing completely. The Arab countries’ peace agreements with Israel, mediated by the US, are becoming a strong trend. Saudi Arabia has already denied the possibility of entering into such an agreement, but the precedent set by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is significant and it is very likely that, over time, pro-Western Arab nations will gradually join peace with Israel. Such Arab nations have not changed their views on Palestine, but the current situation in the region has become too dangerous for them. These countries fear the advance of the Muslim Brotherhood supported by Turkey, which grew a lot in the Syrian War. And, above all, the rivalry with Iran cannot be ignored, especially when Tehran and Ankara progressively tighten their ties.

With Pakistan trying to get closer to the Kuala Lumpur Group – which includes Iran and Turkey – the tendency is for the Saudis to not only distance themselves increasingly from Islamabad, but also to carefully consider the possibility of joining peace with Israel, which, indeed, is the only condition for the kingdom to continue to receive the Western support it currently receives.

This “schism” in the Islamic world will be costly for Pakistan, which has always received great economic support from the Saudis. Currently, Saudi Arabia is home to around 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates, whose remittances contribute highly to Islamabad’s economy. Remittances abroad represent about 86% of Islamabad’s foreign reserves. Of these, 30% are inflows from the Saudi kingdom. In addition, Pakistan imports about a quarter of its oil from Saudi Arabia. In 2019, 74% of their bilateral trade, totaling 1.7 billion dollars, was due to oil imports. In addition, there are latent cultural issues. Saudi Arabia has in its territory the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina, where about 500,000 Pakistanis travel each year on pilgrimage.

However, economic and cultural issues tend to be overlooked when topics involve national security, defense and risks of war. A new bloc of Islamic nations is likely to emerge, rivaling the OIC, opposing Iran, Turkey and Pakistan against the Saudis. Interestingly, such a split will lead to an ethnicization of the geopolitics of the Islamic world, considering that Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia are not Arab nations, and this may be another focus of tensions in the future.

Lucas Leiroz is a research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

September 17, 2020 - Posted by | Economics | , ,

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