The bilateral ties between Riyadh and Islamabad have received a fresh blow after Pakistan foreign affairs minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi slammed Saudi Arabia for not organising a meeting to discuss Kashmir at the 57-members strong Council of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Following Qureshi’s threat of calling a meeting of Islamic countries on its own on Kashmir, Saudi Arabia made strong remarks seeking repayment of $1 billion from Pakistan, which was part of a $ 6.2 billion package announced by Riyadh in November 2018. Saudi Arabia also conveyed to the Imran Khan government that fresh loans or oil supply will no longer be given to Pakistan.
The traditional allies—Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—share deep political, cultural, historical and economic ties, but the current developments between the two are being seen as a new low in the relationship by experts.
The main bone of contention between the two countries is Kashmir. As per Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), the current bitterness in the relations between Riyadh and Islamabad is the culmination of all the issues that cropped up between the two strong allies since 2015. Siddiqui highlights the growing closeness among India and Gulf countries after the Narendra Modi-led government came to power, “which has been like a zero-sum game”.
Saudi Arabia entered Yemen in 2015 and had asked fellow Sunni-majority Pakistan, the only nuclear-armed state in the Muslim world, to provide military help, which was refused by Islamabad following the parliament’s vote against joining the Saudi-led military intervention.
Siddiqui says Iran and Saudi Arabia are two major players fighting each other historically, politically, ideologically and economically but Islamabad’s unclear stand over Iran has alienated Riyadh.
India’s ties with Saudi Arabia
The bilateral ties between India and Saudi Arabia have been strengthened by a series of high level visits by top leaders of the two countries since 2016. The growing ties can be evident from Riyadh’s announcement to make investment worth $100 billion in India in 2019 in areas of energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, minerals and mining. Saudi Arabia has also increased India’s Hajj quota from 170,000 to 200,000. During Modi’s 2016 visit, he was presented with the Sash of King Abdul Aziz, the highest civilian decoration awarded by King Salman.
Riyadh has also dubbed India as one of the Kingdom’s strategic partner countries under Vision 2030, along with a proposal to set up a high-level partnership council.
Siddiqui says when the Kashmir issue again came to the fore, India already had a good understanding with all the Gulf countries and the OIC, which is completely controlled by Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan as a major player.
“But India has been able to influence these countries not to bring Kashmir in the OIC, as it has maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. India has successfully maneuvered its position in these countries on Kashmir, which has alienated Pakistan further from the Arab world”, Siddiqui says.
In a diplomatic victory and setback to Pakistan in 2019, the changing relationships were starkly visible when India was invited to the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) States in Abu Dhabi. Then India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the guest of honour at the inaugural plenary of the 46th meeting of the OIC.
Furthermore, the UAE, Oman, and some North African and West Asian nations are among the other Muslim-majority nations backing India on Kashmir. In October 2019, Saudi Arabia had managed to keep Pakistan away from a meeting of Muslim countries at Kuala Lumpur.
Changing World Order and New Alliances
While Siddiqui believes that the relations between the two countries are not as bad as being projected in the media, he states that the traditional allies need a pragmatic approach in the changing world order and formation of new alliances, as they rely on each other.
He says Pakistan’s growing closeness with Iran, China, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, and Indonesia has given an impression to Saudi Arabia that Islamabad is trying to create a new alliance that consists of non-Arab countries but any kind of rupture or break in the relation would not be that easy.
Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are major destinations for over 87 per cent of Pakistanis seeking jobs abroad, as per the data released by Pakistan’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment. The inflow of remittances from workers overseas has been highest from Saudi Arabia at approximately $5.4 billion, the State Bank of Pakistan revealed.
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