As Pakistan commits 5,000 operational troops to Saudi Arabia to become part of its 33-nation counter-terrorism coalition, some Pakistanis wonder why we couldn’t just say ‘no’. It is felt that had it not been for the prime minister’s personal interests or our civil-military leadership’s hankering for oil at concessional rates and the lure of military support, we may have not considered joining an arrangement that could encourage greater internal insecurity and spoil relations with neighbours such as Iran. These points of view are not, however, the correct lens through which we can decipher developments in a bilateral relationship that is as strategic as the one we have with China but that is rarely talked about in detail. There is no other country in the world whose defence minister has been taken on a visit of our uranium-enrichment facility at Kahuta. But this was the case with Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdelaziz al-Saud, in 1999.
Unlike with China with whom our foreign policy-making community rates relations as the only ones that qualify as strategic, any description of Pak-Saudi linkages is relegated to the realm of the personal and is limited to engagement by either Zia-ul Haq or Nawaz Sharif. Perhaps the failure to categorize our relations with Saudi Arabia as strategic is based on the thinking that it never had military muscle to bail us out during a crisis.
Egyptian Hassan al-Banna was the founder the Muslim Brotherhood, with goals of expelling the British from Egypt and reestablishing the Caliphate. He was born on October 14, 1906. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. He had multiple goals with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood: Expel the British from Egypt and reestablish the Caliphate worldwide to halt secularization. The Muslim Brotherhood quickly gained popularity through a well-organized structure with military, political and social services. He was assassinated in 1949. Academic Tariq Ramadan is his grandson.
In reality, the foundation for Pak-Saudi ties was laid by interactions and interventions that date to the immediate time after the creation of Pakistan. In those days we concentrated on the Saudi state in a bid to position ourselves in the hierarchy of nations. The edifice of this bilateral relationship is erected on our insecurity when it comes to India, our urge to become part of a security relationship with the West (that was always justified on the basis of Pakistan playing a role in the Middle East defence architecture), and Pakistan’s historical traction towards pan-Islamism underpinned by her existential anxieties in the global geopolitical system.
It is only after combing through rare archival material that one realizes how central the Saudi state has been to our national imagination and geopolitical vision. Pak-Saudi relations are certainly not a one-way street.
Jinnah reaches out (1948)
In August 1947, the Arab Peninsula and the Gulf formed a lump of weak states that did not appeal as such to the founding father. He was, however, drawn to Egypt that had greater stability territorially at that time. In January 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had even written a letter to the Egyptian imam and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. “I am writing to you, the great Muslim leader, to inform you that I am determined, by God’s will, to save Pakistan from the tyranny of imperialism and the various hostile currents,” he wrote. “I have therefore decided to follow the advice you kindly gave me in your recent letter, that my government should assume a purely Islamic character and work in close cooperation with the other strong international Islamic organizations which are headed by your Ikhwan-al-Muslimun society [the Muslim Brotherhood].”
Jinnah even asked al-Banna to send prominent Egyptian journalist Saleh El-Ashmawy to Pakistan so he could consult on “how to build our Islamic government and build [the] idea of the Islamic league.”
The English translation of this letter was communicated from Cairo to the British Foreign Office that had been watching developments in Pakistan. It had not deduced from this communication what kind of government Jinnah actually wanted, because in March 1948 the founding father had vetoed a West Punjab government bill to apply the Sharia code for matters of ‘statut personnel’. In any event, the British did not look into links between Pakistan and the Ikhwan because, in the words of British diplomat P. F. Grey, “any additional link between Pakistan and the Middle East will strengthen the ties between Islam and the West and thus help to form a bar to the spread of Communist influence.”
Britain’s outlook is further exemplified in a letter to Sir Paul Patrick at the Commonwealth Relations Office in 1948. The then British High Commissioner at Karachi wrote that: “I have myself always thought it expedient to encourage in the minds of the Pakistan leaders a sense of affinity with the Muslim Middle East, not only for their own good but for ours also.” The high commissioner’s only regret was that while following British advice to send an emissary to the Arab world, Jinnah selected a most inappropriate man for the job, Feroze Khan Noon.
While Jinnah’s obvious focus seems to have been Egypt, there was lesser clarity on the smaller and weaker states of the Arab Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. There was general confusion in the Arab world regarding the partition of India, which was viewed as a British conspiracy. The Arab monarchies, on the other hand, had their own reasons for a lack of excitement. Known for an orthodox Sunni brand of Islam, they considered Pakistan to be ‘inhabited by heretics’. They were even less charmed by the founding father, who appeared to them to be an English-speaking Orientalist. “Mr Jinnah with his Parsee wife and son-in-law and his spats and cigarette-holder, and Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, a Qadiani… inspire no deep sense of Muslim communion in the average Arab,” reported British diplomats at the time.
On a side note, the Saudis continued to deal with Zafarullah Khan and did not raise objections to his faith until as late as 1972 when they refused to accredit an Ahmadiyya Pakistani ambassador designated for the Kingdom. The Ahmadiyya faith that originated in the Indian Subcontinent and followed orthodox principles and adherence to Sharia, probably did not register on the Arab radar until much later. The attention of Saudi clerics was probably drawn towards the Ahmadiyya much later by Pakistani religious scholars and clerics, who the Saudis were historically very connected and dependent upon (as is the case in current times). For instance, Maulana Abu A’la Maududi of the Jamaat-e-Islami had considerable interaction and influence in the Arab world where his concepts had been popularized through Syed Qutb, who had greater traction in the Middle East.
The Arab monarchies were not excited by Partition. Known for an orthodox Sunni brand of Islam, they considered Pakistan to be ‘inhabited by heretics’. They were even less charmed by the founding father, who appeared to them to be an English-speaking Orientalist. As reported then by British diplomats: “Mr Jinnah with his Parsee wife and son-in-law and his spats and cigarette-holder, and Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, a Qadiani (sic)… inspire no deep sense of Muslim communion in the average Arab.”
Winning friends (1950s)
As early as 1951, Sir Zafarullah Khan travelled to the US and UK, selling the idea of Pakistan playing a role in a defence force for the protection of the Middle East. The British were initially excited about Pakistan playing a role, particularly in the Arab Peninsula, which they were in the process of exiting, until they realized that Pakistan’s main interest in playing a key role was to acquire weapons and money that it could use later in its conflict with India. Thus, London assessed that Pakistan was “psychologically ill-equipped for leadership” in the Middle East as its leaders regarded “India such as the Jews of Frankfurt regarded the Nazis” and so were “victims of their own recent past”. The Americans, especially President John F. Kennedy, were, however, keener about Pakistan and wanted to include it in a formal structure for defence of the Middle East that later came about in the form of the Baghdad Pact (1955).
There was less excitement in the Middle East over Pakistan’s role due to two factors. The first one was the traditional arrogance of the Arabs, who looked down on their co-religionists from the Subcontinent, even so far as to consider them lowly. The second reason was that the politics of the Middle East was dominated by a division caused by Egypt’s politics. Despite its internal political chaos, Egypt was more established and comparatively more stable as a state and was drawn into the Russian lobby. In fact, one of the reasons that Britain wanted Pakistan, with its trained bureaucracy and sympathy for Empire, to play a role in the Arab world was because London was weary of Egyptian nationalism. Jinnah, as was pointed out earlier, was drawn to Cairo; however, the warmth was never reciprocated. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was close to Jawaharlal Nehru and didn’t support the idea of the partition of India, didn’t take the new South Asian Muslim state seriously. Moreover, there were no real takers in the Muslim world for Pakistan’s case on Kashmir.
One of the reasons that Britain wanted Pakistan, with its trained bureaucracy and sympathy for Empire, to play a role in the Arab world was because London was weary of Egyptian nationalism.
In some ways, the beginning of the Pak-Saudi connection can be attributed to the first Pakistan-India war on Kashmir which not only established the valley as a conflict point but also drained the newly established state’s fledgling economy. (In 1947/48, a fatwa was even issued from Mecca declaring jihad in Kashmir as a sacred Muslim duty.) After the war, Pakistan had to commit 75 percent of its central government expenditure to defence. The war was, however, more than just a territorial conflict; it was the beginning of an unending competition between the two South Asian neighbours as a result of which Pakistan was propelled to develop its own strong support base and lobby.
Since the Third World was a playing field for both, it made sense for Pakistan to make use of “Islam [which is] in fact her [Pakistan’s] chief stock in trade, in this part of the world at any rate; her one solid advantage over India.” Even Jinnah, as noted in Husain Haqqani’s book Magnificent Delusions, shared the idea with some American diplomats of Pakistan becoming part of a united Muslim front to fight Soviet Communism. The idea was to benefit from the Cold War, especially the fear of Communism in the West and the Muslim world, to create its own niche.
It was under these circumstances that an equally new state of Saudi Arabia emerged as the most “friendly disposed” towards Karachi.
The recent commitment with Gen (r) Raheel Sharif may seem like a major leap from training to active engagement. This shift may itself not be a sudden development but could be linked with a mutual understanding that developed in the wake of the Gulf war regarding Saudi Arabia’s security and its increasing concern about Iran-a fear that Saudi Arabia and Gulf States share with the US and Israel
Utility value (1950s, 1960s)
Pakistan succeeded during the 1950s in establishing good contacts with smaller Gulf states such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and even Muscat from whom it purchased Gwadar. But relations with Riyadh fell in a different category. Pakistan had, for example, inherited the British responsibility of handling the traffic of Muslim pilgrims from the Subcontinent, South-east Asia and Africa until the Saudis insisted on exercising their own influence in the 1960s. There is a long tradition of Muslim scholars from the Subcontinent staying for extended periods in the holy cities and even doing business in the area. In fact, one of the main teachers and mentors of Ibn Abdul Wahab was Hayat al-Sindhi, who had migrated to Saudi Arabia from the area which is now Pakistan in the beginning of the 18th Century and he died there in 1750. Sindhi’s teacher was again another master of the Hadith from Sindh. The works of these exegesis experts is still well respected in Saudi Arabia. This is why, unlike in other Arab states, Urdu was understood and spoken in Jeddah, Mecca and Medina. Another reason that people spoke Urdu in Saudia was also because Arabs would visit India and Pakistan, especially until they acquired wealth that enabled them to venture further. Even the king was a frequent visitor to Pakistan that was an attractive destination for imperial hunters from the Arab world.
Nonetheless, these organic connections were not crucial for Pakistan’s leadership which was fairly western in its lifestyle. What provided the hook instead was probably the experience of dealing very early on with the Saudi state, which itself had no developed bureaucracy until the intervention of American oil company ARAMCO. This certainly provided Pakistan a foothold. During a trip in the summer of 1956, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, Pakistan’s prime minister for a year (1955-56), made a good impression on King Saud. (The PM was close to both the British and Americans, and Maulana Maududi. Indeed, there was much excitement in the British mission in Jeddah over this development.)
Generating a good opinion was essential for Chaudhry Muhammad Ali to market to the king the logic of the Baghdad Pact as a necessity for the region and propose that while Pakistan could not provide Riyadh weapons, it could certainly offer training. The prime minister had brought along his Chief of General Staff Maj. General Sher Ali Khan Pataudi who played an important role on the trip to impress upon the Saudis the low quality of training being imparted by the Egyptian instructors to the parachute troops, who were then considered the pride of the Saudi military. It was General Pataudi who advocated the idea (encouraged by the British) to start some form of training for Saudi paratroopers in Pakistan.
Later, in November 1956, when President Iskander Mirza visited Riyadh to appease the Saudi king after the publication of an article in an Urdu newspaper that had talked about “liberation of holy places from the custody of a worthless king”, he took along his army chief, General Ayub Khan. The king had almost recalled his ambassador in Karachi but the combined efforts of the Pakistanis and British saved the day. President Mirza used this trip to remind the king about the Kashmir issue and he also took the advice of the British diplomats in Jeddah to “promptly introduce Pakistani military instructors and the training of Saudis in Pakistan.”
Thus, we see active Pak-Saudi engagement shaping up in the mid-1950s. One motivation was to stop serious links from developing between Delhi and Riyadh, for in 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru and King Ibn Saud visited each other’s countries. The concern was for the king, who had good ties with Egypt’s Nasser, to develop ties with India.
Generally, Pakistan was cautious during the start of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia conflict even during the late 1950s and early 1960s because there was some realization of internal repercussions of involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Egypt’s Nasser and Yemen (up to the 1970s)
The 1950s and 1960s were a period when this part of the Middle East was largely unstable. Saudi Arabia, for example, had contestations over land with the rulers of Oman and Abu Dhabi. Moreover, these new monarchies were shaken by the idea of an Egypt overrun by the Free Officers Movement in 1952. Nasser with his socialist agenda had demolished the monarchy and introduced massive land reforms. The British were keen to keep King Saud away from Cairo. In 1955, Ibn Saud signed a mutual defence agreement with Egypt to contest Iraq joining the Baghdad pact under which thousands of Egyptian civilian and military personnel came to Saudi Arabia. The king also supported Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, and seemed compelled to accept Nasser’s emerging alliance with the Soviet Union.
Thus British diplomats discussed, as is apparent from a 1955 British Foreign Office internal telegram, that: “if anyone can influence the Saudis towards a more responsible Middle East policy, and incidentally displace the numerous Egyptian experts at present in this country, I should say it was Pakistan”. In a later communication in 1956 between British diplomat in Jeddah R. W. Parkes and his Foreign Office, London was informed that a suggestion was made to President Iskander Mirza who had, “wholeheartedly endorsed our aim of detaching Saudi Arabia from Nasser’s influence and fully shared our hope that it might be possible to replace present Egyptian military instructors by Pakistanis”. The British, besides the US, not only had a strong lobby inside Pakistan’s Foreign Office but also had influence among the country’s larger leadership. They were comfortable with people such as Ikramullah, Agha Shahi, Iskander Mirza, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali and Ayub Khan when it came to the Middle East.
Contrary to the popular belief that defines Zia-ul Haq only ideologically, he too tactically used pan-Islamism. While allowing development of sectarian militancy to counter rising pressure from Shias at home, he maintained fairly good links with Iran’s ideological regime. In mid-1983 Pakistan declined a request by the Saudis to exclude Shias from a detachment sent to Saudi Arabia by saying that their forces were non-sectarian.
By the early 1950s, Pakistan had developed its own gripe with Nasser, who, as mentioned earlier, didn’t take Pakistan seriously and had even rebuffed Prime Minister Suhrawardy when he tried to meet him in 1956 in Cairo on a return trip from the US where he had gone to negotiate the Baghdad Pact. During the 1950s and the 1960s Pakistan thus found itself aligned with the US, Britain and those segments of the Saudi royal family that were opposed to Nasser primarily due to his links with Moscow. After the 1951 Rawalpindi conspiracy that involved prominent civilians and military personnel, Pakistan’s military adopted the goal of fighting the Communist Soviet Union even more vociferously. For the West, Pakistan’s military was one of the better-trained forces that must replace Nasser’s influence in the Middle East. Although some personnel had started to in the late 1950s, a breakthrough didn’t come until a major shift happened in Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom parted ways with Egypt.
In 1962, an Egyptian-trained military officer overthrew the monarchy in Yemen and established the Yemen Arab Republic. This struck too close to home for the Saudi royalty and Riyadh broke off relations with Cairo. Three Saudi pilots, who disagreed with Riyadh’s support for the Yemeni royalists fleeing to Cairo, were the last straw. Not only were Saudi officers banned from flying, about 20,000 Egyptian military personnel were also evicted and had to be replaced. Despite that, some military personnel went to KSA mainly for training, but there were reports of these men put to other tasks as well, such as PAF pilots flying sorties over Yemen. Generally, Pakistan was cautious during the start of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia conflict even during the late 1950s and early 1960s because there was some realization of internal repercussions of involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Egypt’s closure of the Suez Canal in 1956, leading to military action by France and Britain had sparked off massive political protests in both West and East Pakistan. The British had concluded then that even though Pakistan was not seemingly “dominated by Islam”, the “man-on-the-street responds very readily to the cry ‘Islam in danger’ and there is doubt that if the Pakistan government was in fact ahead of public opinion over the Middle East crisis.” Given the pressure from the street, Prime Minister Suharwardy even announced his country’s intent to quit the Commonwealth. A senior Pakistani diplomat confided to the British that the situation would have been more manageable had London and Paris left the job of finishing off Nasser to the Israelis rather than doing it themselves. It was finally Iskander Mirza who assured the British of Karachi that leaving the Commonwealth was more of a threat than reality. The internal crisis was finally managed by gagging the media.
King Faisal’s ascendency to power in 1964 by overthrowing his brother Ibn Saud through a family/tribal coup brought a shift in the Arab Peninsula and its relations with other Muslim states. King Faisal was vehemently opposed to Nasser and the Soviet Union. He was against Arab nationalism and thus, as argued by the Arab historian Madawi al-Rasheed, drew closer to the US. As a result of his anti-Nasser agenda, he brought to Saudi Arabia hundreds of Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood members, who despite support for Nasser during the military takeover found themselves seriously on the receiving end. Egypt’s colonel-ruler did not want Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamism. These Ikhwan would later form part of one of the many influences that went into the making of the unsuccessful Saudi-Wahabi rebellion in 1979, popularly known as the ‘Siege of Mecca’. But Ikhwan were not the only ones who were accommodated. Maulana Maududi was made one of the first trustees of the Islamic University of Medina established in 1961. Staffed with Muslim Brotherhood scholars, the university was meant to counter Al-Azhar in Cairo. Later Maududi was also made a member of the Rabaata-al-Islami whose main purpose was to convert other Muslim populations to the idea of pan-Islamism.
Support from the sidelines (1970s)
Although championing pan-Islamism cost King Faisal his own life in 1975, this was a shared agenda with Pakistan whose leaders were keen to develop the formula for a greater justification of their own state. This commonality of purpose resulted in the 1967 Saudi-Pakistan mutual defence agreement. But there was no major flux in military personnel as the commitment focused on training. This could probably have been due to Ayub Khan’s reservation over drawing his men too deep into the Arab conflict. Pakistan’s Western allies did not want it excessively involved in a conflict in which Israeli interests were at stake either. Moreover, caution was necessary with a Pakistani military that had great pro-Arab sentiment. “Arabs have been predictably most loudly supported by the younger officers—the same ones who call for a second round against India,” the British High Commissioner reported in June 1967. In Staff College Quetta, almost all officers had volunteered to help the Arabs during their war. There were even unconfirmed reports that PAF pilots deployed in Jordan for training had joined the battle but none of this was ever confirmed.
The 1967 defence protocol with Riyadh made provision for only a comparatively small number of officers and the rest coming from other ranks. There were to be 1,800 army, 300 air force and 100 naval personnel. Not until 1980-81 was it that two to three companies of combat engineers began operating in the Khamis Mushayt-Shavourah area (600 to 700 regular troops as a first step towards establishing an armoured brigade equipped with French AMX 30 tanks at Tabuk in the north close to Israeli territory, and 1,000 troops operating 35mm Oerlikon and Vulcan anti-aircraft guns at four Saudi sites). Before the 1980s, the number of troops at any given time did not exceed 2,000. This was primarily because after 1967 up until 1979 there was no major perceived threat to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom did not have a major role to play in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict that was instrumental in destroying Faisal’s key concern, Gamal Abdul Nasser. The latter did not survive the defeat and died in 1970. On Pakistan’s part, the idea was to offer its services to the Arab Peninsula without getting deeply involved in their issues. In any case, the balance of political power was shifting towards Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Even though Bhutto seems to have been fired by Ayub Khan on insistence from the US, there were many among the civil and military bureaucracy who were on his side.
Our formal military links with KSA remained limited to training until now, when we have committed 5,000 troops that are likely to be deployed in the south of Saudi Arabia facing the Yemen border. These troops will be apart of a force which will be headed by General (retd) Raheel Sharif.
On assuming power in 1971, Bhutto, however, continued with the foreign policy he had a hand in designing while serving as part of Ayub Khan’s government. The contours of that policy were to develop links with China and further build on pan-Islamism. Bhutto played pan-Islamism like a master poker player, a game in which he cultivated relations with right-wing Arab governments like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Libya. Politically, pan-Islamism was a beneficial route for him as Ayub Khan had suffered internally due to the 1967 Arab crisis. The general population had resented the government not taking a strong position. From the old parties such as the Awami League and National Awami Party to the new Pakistan Peoples Party, all presented the Arab conflict as an imperialist threat to the Muslim world. This caused much displeasure to the Shah of Iran who had other plans for the region such as a joint Indian Ocean Economic Community, which naturally went, beyond just Muslim states. He had even proposed an Iran-Pakistan confederation in 1963 in which he would be the monarch controlling defence, foreign policy, communication and currency. But Bhutto had other plans that aimed at a bigger role for the country and him. Tehran gave Islamabad a bit of a cold shoulder during the Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore in 1974. But the conference had rubbed other egos the wrong way; Jordan was unhappy with greater attention given to Libya’s Qaddafi. Someone stole King Faisal’s shoes from outside Badshahi mosque.
Post-Iran, Afghan war shifts (1980s)
It was the Iranian revolution that proved to be a watershed in Pakistan-Saudi relations. The year 1979 was also a watershed in Iran-Saudi relations as the latter felt threatened by the establishment of an orthodox Shia state in its neighbourhood. This took place at the same time as the Wahabi rebellion in Mecca. There was also a Shia uprising in the eastern province of Qatif. Hence, Riyadh embarked on a four-pronged approach.
First, it would develop its own network of Sunni states. Second, it would render support to Iraq in its battle with Iran. Third, it would develop means to multiply Sunni ideology. This, in particular, led to an investment in madrassas in Pakistan (both Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith), and modern educational institutions such as the Islamic universities in Pakistan and Malaysia. Fourth, it would strengthen its ideological and institutional linkage with Pakistan for its internal defence.
Contrary to the popular belief that defines Zia-ul Haq only ideologically, he too tactically used pan-Islamism under a larger strategic cover. For instance, he maintained fairly good links with Iran’s ideological regime while allowing development of sectarian militancy to counter rising pressure from Shias at home. Furthermore, in mid-1983, Pakistan declined a request by the Saudis to exclude Shias from a detachment sent to Saudi Arabia by saying that their forces were non-sectarian.
Given Saudi Arabia’s fear of Iran, it required military protection. But it could not muster it because it lacked well-trained forces. This created greater dependency on Pakistan. In September 1980, Maj. General Kallu confirmed to an American diplomat that his division stationed somewhere in Punjab had moved to outside Riyadh for security during Hajj. Although foreign diplomats were skeptical about an entire division being moved to Saudi Arabia, in 1983 there were approximately 13,000 Pakistani military personnel in the Kingdom, perhaps, the highest number at any point ever. Not to forget either is the fact that the Saudis even allowed Pakistan to take credit for cleaning up the Holy Ka’aba from Wahabi militants in 1979 when the actual achievement, as pointed out by Yaroslav Trofimov, was by the French.
The war in Afghanistan brought Riyadh and Islamabad even closer as Saudi Arabia became one of the sources of finance for Pakistan’s military purchases and operation in Afghanistan. One does not, however, get a sense that there was a limitless flow of funds. While the Gulf States contributed US$1 billion, Saudi Arabia added US$500 million. The Saudi contribution went into procuring the F-16s for Pakistan. During the 1980s there was constant chatter of Pakistan entering into talks with Riyadh to commit troops for more money. The then crown prince Fahd visited Pakistan in 1983 and was treated like a head of the state and shown around various military facilities. He did talk about, “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia being one country” yet he did not make additional financial commitment. In April 1983, two agreements were signed on extradition, exchange of information and follow-up of various developments in the security field, and training.
Many developments took place during this period but were not necessarily visible because this was a time when Pakistan started to take a backseat in its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For instance, the efforts made to secure the release of several hundred Pakistanis arrested for celebrating the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday in Medina in December 1984 proved ineffective. The Saudis involved in the celebrations were released after 24 hours. The Pakistanis were kept in jail for months. In fact, Roedad Khan, who was then in the ministry of interior, downplayed the incident, leading western diplomats to conclude that, “the Pakistanis need the money they get from the Saudis in various ways sufficiently to accept the treatment meted out to their citizens”.
But money alone could not have been the sole reason for this lack of temerity. We can glean from Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall’s account on Arabs in Afghanistan that Pakistan did not immediately open its doors for Arab fighters to pour into Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the bilateral relationship did mean that Pakistan later allowed Arab fighters, some of whom belonged to the group of Wahabi rebels of 1979, to join in. These fighters integrated with Pakistani jihadi groups and changed the basic texture of even Deobandi jihadists and ideologues. Over the 1990s and 2000s, Deobandi jihadism grew more Salafised. The fighters also had an impact on the thinking of segments of the security establishment that dealt with Afghanistan. The Afghanistan chapter opened doors, both formal and informal, of communication and finances between the Arab Peninsula and Pakistan. Money from the Arab Peninsula and the Gulf did play a role in these states finding newer clients in Pakistan. For instance, in one particular case a recipient from South Punjab used the money to develop influence in the area and subsequently made his way to parliament in the 2013 elections. Now monies from the Middle East compete with each other as the Qataris have also begun to develop their own clientele to challenge the Saudis in Pakistan. This money and ideological interaction fit right into the frame of our evolving modernity.
Notwithstanding relations in the grey areas, our formal military links remained limited to training until now, when we have committed 5,000 troops that are likely to be deployed in the south of Saudi Arabia facing the Yemen border. These troops will be apart of a force which will be headed by General (retd) Raheel Sharif. The delay in his seeking command was caused perhaps by a few differences starting with a lack of consensus on a definition of terrorism. While Pakistan is concerned about Daesh and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Riyadh cannot seem to pull itself away from Yemen. Then, there is the issue of the Saudis calling the shots rather than Raheel Sharif. Overall, like most non-Arab states, Pakistan would be uncomfortable becoming embroiled in an Arab conflict the same way it was in the 1950s and 1960s. For Islamabad, Saudi Arabia’s security primarily means internal security. Backtracking to 1990, Pakistan had reluctantly contributed a small contingent mainly for the security of the holy sites in the event of an attack, after the US initiated a war against Iraq. Interestingly, Generals Aslam Beg and Hamid Gul at that time had even envisioned an American defeat that would create a gap which would be filled by the “only nuclear Muslim state—Pakistan”. Therefore, the recent commitment may seem like a major leap from training to active engagement. This shift may itself not be a sudden development but could be linked with a mutual understanding that developed in the wake of the Gulf war regarding Saudi Arabia’s security and its increasing concern about Iran—a fear that Saudi Arabia and Gulf States share with the US and Israel. It was in this context that sources believe an understanding was reached during the mid- to late-1990s for Pakistan to provide Saudi Arabia some form of nuclear security umbrella. It is suspected that this could take the form of procuring off-the-shelf nuclear weapons in case there is a serious threat to Riyadh, which is one of the reasons, as some experts believe, Saudi Arabia provided US$1.5 billion to Pakistan in 2014. The money is viewed as part of the payment.
On assuming power in 1971, Bhutto, however, continued with the foreign policy he had a hand in designing while serving as part of Ayub Khan’s government. The contours of that policy were to develop links with China and further build on pan-Islamism. Bhutto played pan-Islamism like a master poker player, a game in which he cultivated relations with right-wing Arab governments like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Libya.
Such cooperation would naturally be of concern to Iran whose ambassador was recently seen actively engaging with Pakistan’s army chief. While only a fly on the wall may know the contents of those conversations, one could guess that the meetings were possibly about Pakistan’s inclusion in the counter-terrorism force. It is equally probable that COAS General Qamar Bajwa may have shared his concern about Iran-India cooperation and the lack of help from Tehran on the Kulbhushan Yadav spy case.
But then, even Riyadh talked to New Delhi, which is obvious from Saudi Arabia’s decision to hand over to India in 2012 Syed Zabiuddin Ansari, a man suspected of playing a central role in the Mumbai attacks, and talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2016 visit. But this cooperation may not seriously extend beyond Saudi Arabia wanting to get rid of radical elements from its own land or some economic linkage that would eat into Pakistan’s share in the workforce as happened in the Gulf States. However, the meeting can also be interpreted as Riyadh keeping its options open in case Pakistan takes some uncertain turn. Interestingly our investigative journalism and fledgling academia remain silent on Saudi reaction to the news of the Dr Qadeer network feeding nuclear technology and know-how both to Libya and Iran. But it is very obvious that in recent years Saudi Arabia has begun to build independent relations with the Taliban, a development worth closely watching.
What is important to note is that there may be tactical divergence of goals and the intensity of the relationship may vacillate. But Saudi Arabia remains central to Pakistan’s pan-Islamism, which is the one direction in which both the state and society seems to be headed. It would also be helpful to remember that we were not led by a noose into this relationship but it was one that developed out of mutual interest. Now, however, it is very much part of our foreign policy DNA.
Note: This article originally published here.