The Saudi royals were determined to impress new American President Donald Trump which is why they rolled out the red carpet and lined up a bevy of friends from the Muslim world for the visiting American dignitary and his team. The Islamic summit was, however, less about bringing the Muslim world to the table and more about reclaiming the space that Riyadh felt it had lost during Barack Obama’s tenure. For Saudi Arabia, Obama’s Iran deal risked shifting the balance of power in the Muslim world, altering the fundamentals of a relationship most critical for Riyadh, and creating conditions that would have implications for the Kingdom even within the Arab world.
It is difficult for many Pakistanis to view with sympathy the dynamics of the Islamic summit. They are perhaps more concerned with Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, who is not the hero of the popular narrative. Indeed, after the summit he was accused of bringing shame to the country for not managing to wrangle the spotlight, which Pakistan felt it deserved. He did not have a private conversation with Trump, make a speech or accomplish anything that Pakistanis felt would make them proud of him. It is altogether a different matter, though, that no matter what he does, the country’s media will judge him harshly even though, during his three tenures, he has managed to push through some measures vis-à-vis the permanent center of power of the state which would have been previously unthinkable. It is probably his centralized and family-driven style of governance that makes people recoil. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if his heart is in the right place because his fist is in the wrong one.
His domestic popularity or lack of it did not have any impact on Riyadh’s behaviour as the Saudi leadership has never been too fussed about the sensitivities of individual leaders in Pakistan as long as they are committed to the Kingdom’s security, its larger security goals and the formula of Sunni pan-Islamism. It was during the early years of Pakistan’s independence and those of the creation of the modern Saudi state that their leadership chose pan-Islamism. Nationalism, which is popularly referred to as ethnicity in Pakistan, did not appeal to its founding leadership and the Saudis were not comfortable with Arab nationalism that would have unraveled the idea of the Saudi state.
Pakistan has always committed to the Kingdom’s security. In 1969, during the height of the Saudi-Yemen conflict, PAF pilots flew Sabre jets in operational missions over the latter. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was equally eager to cultivate ties with the Kingdom and did not deviate from the principle policy that was formulated during the mid-1950s regarding the Kingdom. He did, however, make King Faisal slightly uncomfortable by cultivating Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi whom Faisal considered nothing more than a majnoun (a madman). Given the Saudi dependence on Pakistan’s armed forces, Riyadh did not bother to ask General Zia for a pardon for Bhutto, which has nothing to do with Wahhabism or their affinity with (the more Islamic) Zia-ul Haq.
Bhutto was a smart leader for sure, but the 1970s were also different times. The Saudi Kingdom was still trying to strengthen itself and face challenges. Even though King Faisal’s years in power stabilized the state, the trials were numerous. To start with, the years of his elder brother King Saud were not marked by good financial management. Although Saud was later replaced in 1964 through an internal family coup, he continued to pose a challenge to Faisal. Then there were the younger sons of Ibn Saud who had gone into exile in Egypt and had demanded a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia. That echoed a Leftist perspective popular in the Middle East in different shapes and forms and certainly in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. The Egyptian leader was also the primary driver of confrontation with Israel to which Saudi Arabia was theoretically committed but not passionately tied to. However, given Nasser’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war, Faisal had to shoulder a lot of burden. It was also his opportunity to posit himself as a leader of the Muslim world. Thus, he used oil as a weapon to negotiate. He suppressed the Palestinians and al-Fatah in Saudi Arabia. In this sense, the Kingdom was no different from Jordan where the monarchy was equally uncomfortable with the leftist shade of militant Arab leadership of those times. This is where we witness a meeting of minds with Faisal and Bhutto both making an effort to internationalize the Palestinian issue for their national and personal needs.
However, a far more interesting matter from the 1970s was the unintended rift that developed between the US and Faisal. Unlike King Saud, Faisal was inclined towards Washington which made him more traditional than his brother who was partial to Nasser’s Arab nationalism and the attending policy of the nationalization of resources. Given the popularity of the Palestinian issue in most Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Faisal had to take a stern position which meant using oil as a weapon, especially after Nasser’s defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. In fact, Faisal proved to be quite lenient as far as American interests were concerned. Riyadh played a critical role even in the heyday of the OPEC crisis by not letting oil prices spiral out of control.
There were three reasons for his particular position. First, Faisal inherited the dependency on the US which was the key source of money for oil and weapons to Faisal’s father King Ibn Saud when he set out to build a new state. The signing of an agreement with ARAMCO had made his oil revenue jump from US$56.7 million in 1950 to US$110 million in 1951. The American leadership showed him greater respect than Britain’s Churchill, who was not even there to welcome the young Faisal on his maiden diplomatic voyage on behalf of his father. Second, Faisal depended upon the Americans for intelligence and security especially during the volatile years of the 1960s and the 1970s. For instance, the CIA had given him a tip-off regarding a conspiracy brewing in his military to overthrow the royalty in 1969. According to the grapevine in Saudi Arabia about 300 personnel were tortured to death. Third, one of the strategic relationships (from Riyadh’s standpoint) is with Washington. Thus, it was during the 1980s that King Fahd committed that crude would never be used to arm-twist the West.
Faisal’s years were also those wherein lies the foundation stone of Arab religious militancy that culminated in the form of 9/11. But this was a period when religious radicalism was considered critical by many powers, including Britain and the US, as a necessary counterbalance to secular Arab nationalism. However, this fundamentalism was not the only game in town, as King Faisal also began the journey towards material modernity in his kingdom, the reaction to which came in the form of the 1979 siege of Mecca by Wahhabi zealots who were against the introduction of women’s education, television and the telephone in the country. In fact, a glance at the Saudi state and society indicates an evolution of several intriguing trends—a monarchy that gradually tilted more and more towards socio-cultural modernity and technological development, an elite that parroted this behaviour, and a traditional society which was left to follow the old ways of life.
Contrary to the understanding that Saudi Arabia remains static and a source of radical Wahhabi ideology, the kings after Faisal have gradually moved towards changing social behaviour and are carefully pushing the envelop while negotiating with the clergy which is part of the state elite. While King Ibn Saud curbed the power of the radical Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) during the 1930s to encourage the business community in Jeddah and around the world, the last king Abdullah curtailed the power of the mutawah (religious police) substantially. For example, no one could imagine even five years ago not joining the prayer congregation immediately after azzan. The fact that by 2012-2013 the mutawah no longer herded people off and allowed individuals to make their own decision to pray was quite a shift.
Perhaps, such a relaxation or tiny individual liberties may not be enough but they were necessitated by the kingdom’s need to change its image as a regressive one. Such a perception may have been enhanced had the US partnered with Iran, an agreement that allowed Tehran to rebuild its economic, military and geopolitical muscle. The release of frozen Iranian resources would have tilted the balance of power substantively, a view that the Arab states of the Middle East and the Gulf seem to share with the Trump Administration or even before Trump’s victory, with Israel.
Interestingly, the Israeli prime minister’s speech against the agreement was beamed out throughout the Middle East and the Gulf. This is also a new Saudi leadership which is willing to take additional risks to strengthen ties with the US, a country on whom the royal family has been dependent for different reasons since the 1950s. The fact that Ivanka Trump was allowed to land in the Kingdom without wearing a headscarf or sit through the meetings does not necessarily indicate an impending social liberalization in the kingdom but it is a barometer of how far the new leadership is willing to go to accommodate Washington.
In this respect, the summit was a successful Saudi show in which the country’s royalty ensured that it gave Trump the confidence that they were on the same page as far as the definition of terrorism and its source is concerned. The fact that the Saudi leadership and the US president lambasted Iran as a source of terrorism made the agenda very clear. One wonders what the Pakistani prime minister would have added to the conversation which was so tilted against one significant bloc in the Muslim world. Another question is the logic of the propaganda of the past few months in Pakistan’s media that made suggestions on General Raheel Sharif’s ability to guide Saudi foreign and security policy and agenda. Why did we even think that including Iran in this coalition was ever on the cards or would have been allowed?
The issue with strategic relationships is often that they impose limitations on action or an alteration of course. The fact that Nawaz Sharif had to sit through the meeting explains the burden of a strategic relationship that is rarely admitted in Pakistan’s foreign policy narrative. It is not just a matter of the prime minister’s possible business interests but the fact that we reportedly have 7,000 military personnel currently serving in Saudi Arabia and have had a sizeable contingent serving there since the 1980s explains one crucial aspect of our dependency. The formation of a Muslim NATO and the appointment of a four-star general is another avenue that may expand. While Saudi Arabia will remain dependent on American arms supplies, it would require Pakistani generals, ground forces, and naval and air technicians to run the military machine.
Nonetheless, there are many Pakistanis who cannot shut their eyes to the high cost of the Pakistan-Saudi linkage, especially the apprehension of its impact on sectarian conflict in the country. One wonders if there was a wild expectation that the prime minister would make a speech in which he would have apprised the Arab-American leadership of building ties in the Muslim world. But what was the possibility of anyone listening? The people gathered in Riyadh, as mentioned earlier, were there to fix a Middle East-West hemisphere problem. Pakistan was never given a choice from the onset of selecting an alternative route which can be attributed to the traditional lack of maneuverability in the bilateral relationship. This is due to an inherent structural flaw in Pakistan’s overall foreign policymaking caused by the ‘India factor’.
The question worth asking at this juncture is where does Islamabad want to take its relationship with Saudi Arabia? Defining or re-defining this linkage is certainly not easy for a prime minister bogged down domestically. However, making sense of Pakistan’s Saudi policy would also require a clear assessment of our geopolitical ambitions, our strengths and weaknesses. Its often the gap between estimates and actual capacity that creates geopolitical black holes.
Note: This article originally published here.