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Why has Pakistan lost friends in the Middle East?

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan driving the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman as a special gesture of welcome during a visit to Pakistan in 2019.

A few days ago, when Pakistan’s army chief was snubbed in Riyadh, it was seen as yet another blow to the fast deteriorating relations between two countries which had, at least for a time, come to think of themselves as fast allies, bound not least by ties of religion. Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the holiest shrines of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and Pakistan, a country built in the name of Islam, in Venkat Dhulipala’s memorable phrase, as a ‘new Medina’.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have long been close. The common understanding of their arrangement, in simple terms, is this – Saudi Arabia provides money and cheap oil to ever economically beleaguered Pakistan, and in turn is allowed to spread its state ideology, Wahhabi Islam, across Pakistan, and Pakistan, with perhaps the most professional and powerful army in the Muslim world, and the keeper of the ‘Islamic bomb’, a reference to its nuclear capabilities, would act in a sense as the last resort defender of the House of Saud. Its armed forces would be made available to Saudi Arabia and if need be, the Pakistani army and its well-trained generals would defend the royal family.

The keeper of the Muslim bomb status is something Pakistan has often attempted to leverage in its negotiations across the Islamic world.

But these positions, long treasured, are now in significant flux. Pakistan cannot offer what the prominent Gulf states want anymore, and they, therefore, are reluctant to provide what Pakistan desperately seeks.

The long-term sustainability of the Gulf kingdoms, even as they wean away from oil revenues, lies, in fact, in holding onto to those revenues for as long as they can. China and India are, and indeed will continue to be, among the biggest oil consumers in the world. In 2019, China’s crude oil imports hit a record – for the 17th consecutive time. Barring a dip due to Covid-19, India’s imports of Saudi Arabian crude has consistently hit record highs.

The Gulf countries need volume purchasers of their oil and gas; they need large and prosperous markets. Pakistan cannot offer them this. India and China can. So, the Saudis have no interest in hosting a special session of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) to discuss Kashmir. Nor do they – like the Pakistanis – have any leeway in bringing up the Uighur issue with China. Energy hungry China needs secure sources for its future energy needs – which supersedes any further confrontation with India – to push Saudi Arabia, the leader of the OIC, at Pakistan’s behest.

With United Arab Emirates (UAE) having signed a historic peace deal with Israel, the path for the Gulf countries is clear. They have little use in pushing the Palestinian or the Pakistani cause. They have far more to gain – in terms of market, investment, military, and intelligence support by further strengthening their ties with India and China, and even befriending Israel.

Pakistan objected fiercely to the UAE’s normalisation of ties with Israel, quoting its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah that it would never accept the existence of Israel. But this objection made no difference to UAE’s decision which chose to join hands with a country with some of the most advanced technological prowess on critical areas like water, cyber security and artificial intelligence, rather than Pakistan where economic crisis continues unabated. Finally, the UAE chose a country with a per capita (PPP) of nearly $40,000 ignoring the objections of a country with less than $6,000 per capita (PPP). UAE needs Israel’s weapon technology, its start-up culture, and its irrigation techniques that can make the desert bloom. Pakistan has little to offer to UAE. This is a choice more and more Gulf nations will inevitably make.

Pakistan might believe that its all-weather friend China could pressurise and change some decisions, but it is wrong. The Chinese have no reason to interfere. A Middle East where Arabs and Israelis figure out peace deals is a stable Middle East meaning stable and secure energy supplies to China. It would be loath to disturb this for Pakistan.

As evidenced from the Saudi snub to Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa who failed to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his recent visit to Riyadh, the winds are shifting in the Middle East. Bajwa's visit was meant to pacify the kingdom after Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi complained that if the Saudis do not call for an OIC meeting on Kashmir, Pakistan will do so by itself (and with other supporters like Malaysia and Turkey). The Saudis responded by immediately recalling a $1 billion loan to Pakistan and refusing to renew an oil credit facility. The loan was repaid by Pakistan by borrowing from China. But that is as far as the Chinese might be willing to go on this.

Where does this leave Pakistan? And where does this leave the Middle East? In a state of tremendous flux and with an increasingly shadowy role played by Turkey. In what way? This is the subject of my next essay on New World Order.

Read Part 2 of this essay here.


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