Pakistan: Time to Cast Aside the Saudi Albatross?

Developing Just Leadership

Editor

Muharram 13, 1442 2020-09-01

Editorials

by Editor (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 7, Muharram, 1442)

Pakistan seems to have had enough of Saudi foot-dragging on the core issue of Kashmir. Despite repeated pleas from Islamabad to convene a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to lend support to the Kashmiris, Riyadh has ignored such calls. The 10 million Kashmiris have suffered extreme brutality at the hands of the Indian occupiers for decades that intensified in August 2019 when India unilaterally abrogated its special status plunging the region into turmoil.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), also refused to renew the $3.2 billion deferred payments facility for oil supplies that expired in July 2020. Pakistan’s repeated requests for extension went unheeded and last month the Saudis announced its termination. At the same time, Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan repay the $3 billion ($1 billion was repaid in July and other payments are on the way). Luckily, China came to Pakistan’s rescue (more on this later).

Far from supporting the oppressed Kashmiris, the Saudis have cultivated close links with India’s fascist regime led by Narendra Modi. The Saudis also pledged to invest $100 billion in India although collapse of oil prices and the pandemic have put a hold on such plans.

Saudi disregard of the Kashmiris’ plight seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. On August 4, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi publicly complained about Saudi and the Gulf states’ inaction over Kashmir. Speaking to ARY News, the foreign minister said: “I am once again respectfully telling OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. If you cannot convene it, then I’ll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.”

Kashmir is of vital interest to Pakistan. Water for its predominantly agricultural economy comes from rivers originating in Indian occupied Kashmir. Delhi has periodically threatened to block the flow. That would be disastrous for Pakistan. Equally disconcerting is Saudi indifference to the plight of the Kashmiris that have suffered decades of Indian army brutality.

This became even more critical when India unilaterally abrogated Kashmir’s tenuous autonomous status in August 2019. Pakistan’s expectation from its friends was that they would take a clear stand against India’s illegal moves that have resulted in increased brutality. Instead, Saudi Arabia and its close ally United Arab Emirates have deepened ties with India. During his visit to India in February 2019, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) signed deals worth $100 billion. True, he had also pledged to invest $20 billion in Pakistan a few days earlier but the difference in sums did not go unnoticed, at least in Islamabad. While these investments may now be put on hold or revised downward given the sharp decline in oil prices and the devastating impact of the pandemic, the Saudis’ pro-India tilt is clearly evident.

Convening a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of OIC member states would neither have been such an earth-shattering event or solved the Kashmir dispute. It would, however, have sent an important message: that the Muslim Ummah is united on Kashmir. The Saudis were not prepared for even such a symbolic gesture, perhaps terrified of upsetting India’s Hindu fascists.

Foreign Minister Qureshi could not have made such an important public statement without the consent of other decision-makers in the country. He also said if the OIC failed to convene the Foreign Ministers’ meeting, Pakistan would call a session of countries that are willing to support the Kashmiri cause.

Who would Pakistan call upon? Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, all non-Arab countries, would be on the list. Does it mean parting of ways for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? Since Qureshi’s public complaint, Pakistan tried to temper Saudi anger by sending army chief General Qamar Bajwa and ISI Director, General Faiz Hameed to Riyadh but during their August 17 visit, they only met Saudi military chiefs, not crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, the real decision-maker. Despite putting a positive spin on the visit, Pakistan seems to have achieved little of substance.

Qureshi’s visit to China a few days later (August 21) seems to have yielded far better results. Qureshi met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and vowed to strengthen the already strong ties. This was followed by China’s President Xi Jinping sending a letter to his Pakistani counterpart Dr. Arif Alvi stating that his country was ready to work with Pakistan to deepen the building of “China-Pakistan Community of Shared Future” and to jointly promote cooperation among regional countries.

The contours of a new political and economic alignment are beginning to emerge. Pakistan-China friendship dates back to the early 1960s. This has since deepened especially with China’s Road and Belt Initiative (BRI) of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a vital component. Other countries are also beginning to coalesce around this plan including Iran, Turkey and Russia. In fact, Iran’s ambassador to Islamabad, Syed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, has frequently stressed such cooperation.

On the core issue of Kashmir, Pakistan has received far greater support from this bloc of countries than the Arabian regimes. And now that they are hurtling toward embracing the illegitimate Zionist entity, Islamabad would be well advised to look elsewhere for support. Besides, Pakistan’s arch-enemy India is a fully paid-up member of the American-led alliance against China. India-China border clashes last June point to the deepening fault-lines in the region that Pakistan should utilize to advance its core interests.

For decades Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were seen as conjoined twins. In return for financial handouts, the Pakistan army was deputed to not only train Saudi forces—a herculean task given the Saudis’ legendary incompetence—but also a pledge to protect the ruling family. Millions of Pakistanis worked in the kingdom performing menial jobs where they were mistreated and humiliated without evoking any protest from Pakistani officials. Successive Pakistani rulers cultivated personal relations with Saudi rulers—more like slave-master relationship—and were frequently invited by the Saudis to perform Umrah and Hajj, all expenses paid.

When Imran Khan became the prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018, he went out of his way to maintain those close ties with the “brotherly” Saudi kingdom. This was also the preferred choice of Pakistan’s all-powerful military.

Pakistani deference to Saudi demands took extreme forms. Islamabad backed the Saudi-created so-called Islamic military alliance—clearly intended to target Islamic Iran. In violation of its own laws, Pakistan allowed its former military chief, General Raheel Sharif to head this military outfit. Luckily General Sharif has no troops under his command. It is a one-man coalition of 35 countries!

Pakistan also provided diplomatic support to Bin Salman by participating in the Saudi economic summit in Riyadh when most Western officials stayed away soon after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Pakistan was also forced, under Saudi pressure, to skip the Muslim summit in Malaysia last December when in fact the idea was jointly proposed by Turkish President Recept Tayip Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamed and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Why should Pakistan put up with such humiliation?

It is time for Pakistan to abandon outdated policies pretending that the Saudi regime will help if Islamabad repeats its pledge to save the ruling family. These dinosaurs of the desert are heading for extinction. Pakistan should not waste any more time with them.

Islamabad must also take effective steps to confront the paid lobbies of Saudi Arabia and the US that will try to undermine the country’s shift to a new paradigm.

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