Suffering setbacks in Yemen, Saudi Arabia seeks closer ties and increased military cooperation with East and South Asian countries. Analysts say Pakistan provides a stepping stone for Riyadh’s “look east” policy.
For the past 18 months, Saudi Arabia has been locked in a bitter conflict in Yemen and still hasn’t been able to defeat Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in the Middle Eastern country. In the past few weeks, Riyadh has suffered heavy blows in Yemen, which has promoted the Saudi monarchs to once again reach out to its allies in Asia.
Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman briefly stopped over in Pakistan over the weekend on his way to an East Asia trip. During his stay in Islamabad, bin Salman met with the Pakistani civilian and military leadership to “discuss issues of common interest,” according to the local media.
Bin Salman’s visit comes at a time when Riyadh is wary of the prospects of US military cooperation with Russia and Washington’s warming ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional arch rival.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper cited a source saying that the Saudi defense minister sought reassurance from Islamabad in view of the changing geo-political situation in the region.
It is unclear what kind of assurances Pakistani officials made to bin Salman. Saudi Arabia, which is one of Pakistan’s biggest financers, has been unhappy with Islamabad’s reluctance to join the coalition against Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Last year in March, the Arab kingdom launched a military campaign against the Shiite rebels, who have taken over swathes of territory in Riyadh’s southern neighborhood, raising concerns in Saudi Arabia about a potential Shiite uprising in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia also fears that Iran wants to increase its influence in the region.
In April 2015, Riyadh formally asked for Pakistani combat planes, warships and soldiers, but the South Asian country’s lawmakers voted to remain neutral in the conflict. However, security experts say that being an ally of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is part of a security cooperation agreement under which about 1,000 Pakistani troops are performing an “advisory” role to Riyadh and are stationed in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
“PM Sharif and Saudi defense minister pledged to further enhance the bilateral ties between the two brotherly countries and strengthen their cooperation in diverse fields,” PM Sharif’s office said in a statement.
Experts say that Pakistan’s economic dependence on the Arabian country is a reason behind Pakistan’s “secret” support for Riyadh in the Yemen conflict. “Latest figures show that the largest sum of Pakistan’s foreign exchange comes from Saudi Arabia. There is a mammoth work force of Pakistani laborers in the Arab countries. It would be ‘suicidal’ to offend the Saudis,” Sweden-based Pakistani researcher and journalist, Farooq Sulehria, told DW.
A Pakistani analyst based in the UK told DW on condition of anonymity that Pakistan already had troops in Saudi Arabia in an assisting role. The reason why Pakistan’s army chief has accompanied Sharif on a number of Saudi visits since the start of the Yemen war represents the military’s intentions to sell Pakistani weapons to the Arab leaders and to test the locally-manufactured drones and missiles in Yemen, said the analyst.
However, Islamabad’s over-enthusiasm to please Riyadh could further exacerbate its relations with Tehran. The ties between the two Asian neighbors have been tense for many years. The two countries have border conflicts, and Tehran is also not very pleased with Islamabad’s alleged support to various Sunni militant groups, which have been involved in launching attacks in Iran’s eastern areas, and massacring Shiite citizens inside Pakistan.
“It is obvious that the Pakistani-Iranian ties have not been cordial for quite some time. However, if the Pakistani government gives more importance to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict, the relations will likely get acrimonious,” Tariq Pirzada, a foreign affairs expert in Islamabad, told DW.
Tehran is aware of Islamabad’s cooperation with Riyadh. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Pakistan in March in an attempt to convince its government to remain neutral in the conflict. Iran is aware of the concerns and limitations of its ties with Pakistan, but analysts say it still wants to maintain “normal” relations with the neighboring country.
“Pakistan remains solidly allied with Saudi Arabia, regardless of how intense the outreach may be from Tehran. There are decades of close military cooperation that are not about to undone,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
Pakistan’s sectarian strife
The South Asian country’s intelligentsia and civil society have voiced their displeasure and concern over Pakistan’s involvement in the Saudi-Iranian conflict.
“Pakistan should not get involved in the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry,” Mosharraf Zaidi, a former USAID consultant and Islamabad-based foreign policy expert, told DW. “We must not forget that Riyadh and Tehran have their own interests, therefore the Pakistani government, too, should do what is best for the country. It must keep good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he added.
The sectarian Shiite-Sunni strife in Pakistan has been ongoing for some time now, with militant Islamist groups unleashing terror on the minority Shiite groups in many parts of the country. Most of these outfits, including the Taliban, take inspiration from the hard-line Saudi-Wahabi Islamic ideology.
“For Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalists, the country is already a ‘Sunni Wall’ against Shiite Iran,” Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute, told DW in an interview.
“The policy of containing the Shiite influence in the region was seriously affected after the collapse of the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. These events created a power vacuum which is now being increasingly filled by Tehran. Saudi Arabia does not want to see the rise of Iran and will continue to do anything to ensure Sunni dominance,” he added.
Riyadh looks east
As ties between Riyadh and Washington deteriorate, Saudi Arabia drifts towards China. On Monday, August 29, Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Beijing to discuss bilateral issues on the invitation of the Chinese government.
“Saudi Arabia has chosen to look at its relations with Asia in the light of rapidly changing geopolitics in the region and beyond,” writes Ehtesham Shahid, Managing Editor at Al Arabiya newspaper.
The analyst is of the view that “Pakistan provides a stepping stone for Riyadh’s ‘look east’ strategy and the country seems eager to tap into this opportunity.”
“Under these circumstances, it makes sense for Riyadh to start with countries closer to home, which helps build bridges with Asian giants,” Shahid underlined.
Pakistan, too, is more than willing to support China in its regional ambitions given that the US has very little to offer economically and geopolitically in the present circumstances.
“Pakistan knows that China is going to be the superpower in ten years. Islamabad is getting closer to Beijing and its alliance with Washington is slowly and gradually taking a back seat,” Ali Shah, a Pakistani researcher in Karachi, told DW.