As Saudi Tilts Toward India, Pakistan Seeks New Allies

Driven by investment in India, Riyadh waffles on Kashmir

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh 

Cracks have appeared in relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as bilateral interactions are shaped by the increasing struggle for power within the Sunni Muslim world – a struggle that Pakistan is attempting to respond to in a way that allows it to reduce its over-dependence on the Kingdom. 

Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan, standing alongside Mahathir Mohammad during a Malaysian tour, said that the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the collective voice of 57 Islamic nations, has failed to play its role in protecting the rights of Muslims in Jammu & Kashmir and isn’t putting enough pressure on India to give Kashmiris the right to self-determination. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu government on August 4, 2019 moved to end the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, which is more than 60 percent Muslim, amid a harsh military crackdown that has been criticized by human rights activists globally. 

While the world mainly views intra-Islamic rivalry as that between Saudi Arabia as the seat of the Sunni religion and Iran as the major Shiite power, in fact there is another rivalry for primacy and that is among the Sunnis. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been at odds since 1818, when the Saudi monarch was brought to Istanbul in chains and displayed in a cage before his head was chopped off. They remain so today, and Mahathir has never displayed any particular modesty in his pretensions to power in the Muslim world. 

Khan’s statement came only a month and a half after Saudi Arabia, seeking to protect massive oil-related investment in India, had pressured Pakistan to back out delivering a statement at an OIC summit in Kuala Lumpur, followed by subsequent Saudi assurance that the organization would call a foreign minister-level summit on the Kashmir question. 

The OIC summit, of course, has never materialized and the Saudis have, ever since the promise, been trying to downgrade the summit to speakers’ level; hence, the continued disagreement. 

Khan’s criticism of the OIC hit at what he saw as Saudi unwillingness to take up a “true leadership” role in the Muslim world. If India’s move to relieve Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status has taught Pakistan one real lesson, it is that of a stark absence of resources, both diplomatic and strategic, to respond to Indian hegemonic moves. Islamabad has realized that sole dependence on the Saudis to mobilize international opinion against India would not suffice now or any time in the future. Hence Pakistan’s increasing search for alternative avenues, including the KL summit, which it sought to use to project the Kashmir issue. 

As such, while the dominant – and mistaken – perception that Pakistan backing out of the KL summit had antagonized Malaysia and Turkey, Khan’s visit to Malaysia and Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan and the Turkish leader’s broad diplomatic support for Kashmir has assured that Pakistan is weaning itself away from the Saudi led camp and is forging closer ties with Saudi’s chief competitors Malaysia and Turkey, and even a rival, Iran. 

It’s no coincidence that all these countries have, very much unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Pakistan’s traditional allies, supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. Also, it is not a coincidence that all of these countries are, in one way or the other, trying to create a bloc and even a rival of the OIC within the Muslim world to challenge Saudi domination. Hence their support for Kashmir, although this support may not be enough to make a real impact beyond keeping the Kashmir issue alive. 

Whereas Pakistan would have expected the Saudis and the UAE to play a strong role in protesting India’s takeover of Kashmir, to Islamabad’s dismay, Riyadh instead chose to make an investment worth billions of dollars in India’s oil industry – something that the Saudis are yet to do in Pakistan. The UAE, on the other hand, awarded their highest civilian award to Modi, a recognition of strong India-UAE economic ties. 

The reluctance of states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to raise their voices on Kashmir isn’t because they don’t agree with Pakistan, but rather, as realism would suggest, doing so goes against their interests. These Gulf states are very much unlikely to organize a high-profile summit on Kashmir at a time when they are working on forging deep economic ties with India.  

At the moment, the UAE, India’s tenth-largest foreign investor, has investments in India currently estimated to be close to US$13-14 billion. India, on the other hand, remains the UAE’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral non-oil trade amounting to US$18.2 billion in the first half of 2019. According to some estimates, the volume of bilateral trade between India and the UAE is likely to reach US$100 billion in 2020, jumping from the current US$57 billion. Both the Saudis and the UAE are going to jointly set up a US$100 billion petrochemical industrial establishment in India. By contrast, promised Saudi investment in Pakistan is only US$20 billion. 

Given the nature of their economic ties, these Gulf states are unlikely to pay serious heed to Pakistan. Must Pakistan, therefore, follow a realistic approach and wean away from the kingdom? While Pakistan is already in the middle of doing so, there are certain limitations, which were at the heart of Pakistan’s decision to bow down to Saudi Arabia and back out of the KL summit. As it stands, a crucial source of Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings is the inward remittances it receives from Pakistani workers and diaspora based in the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

In the current [2020] fiscal year, Pakistan, for instance, expects to receive remittances US$3.05 billion from Saudi Arabia and US$2.74 billion from the UAE. Needless to say, they are Pakistan’s two biggest sources of remittances. As the KL summit episode showed, the Saudis had threatened to expel Pakistani workers if Pakistan had gone ahead with Saudi in case of Pakistan’s participation in the summit. 

The challenge for Pakistan, therefore, is to reduce its dependence on Saudi Arabia and walk a balancing act between the rival camps within the Muslim world. 

As such, while Pakistan may not be extremely willing to establish a new bloc or a multilateral organization within the Muslim world, it can certainly use to its advantage the current levels of fragmentation and rivalry to counterbalance Saudi dominance.