Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan has reaffirmed the strength of its relations with Saudi Arabia this week after a diplomatic spat sparked by perceived inaction by the Gulf kingdom on the issue of Kashmir threatened to derail what has been one of the South Asian country’s strongest alliances in the region.
Earlier this month, Pakistan accused the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 57 Muslim-majority countries that is led by Saudi Arabia, of inaction over the Kashmir issue – a key policy issue for Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan – and threatened to hold a rival meeting that would bypass the group.
“I am once again respectfully telling the OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation,” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in a television news appearance on August 4.
“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.”
Pakistan has been trying to drum up international support following New Delhi’s decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status last August.
The call was a shot across the bows, ostensibly challenging Saudi Arabian hegemony over leadership of the Muslim world, analysts say, and cut to the heart of the Gulf kingdom’s foreign policy.
“It was extraordinary and unprecedented,” says Cyril Almeida, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and a Pakistani journalist. “No one had ever seen anything like it before [in the Pakistan-Saudi relationship].”
In response, Saudi Arabia withdrew a $1bn interest-free loan it had extended to Pakistan in November 2018, when the country was in dire economic straits and required foreign reserves to avoid a possible sovereign default.
The kingdom has also, so far, refused to renew a deferred oil payments scheme that was part of the same package, aimed at helping Pakistan ease its import bill.
On August 17, Pakistan’s powerful Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa was dispatched to Saudi Arabia for talks that were downplayed by a military spokesperson as being “routine” and dealing with “military-to-military” matters.
Days later, Pakistan’s foreign office issued a statement that was glowing in its praise of the OIC’s role on Kashmir, and on Monday, Foreign Minister Qureshi appeared to walk back the comments that initiated the rift.
“The OIC has passed many resolutions on Kashmir and there is no ambiguity in them,” he told reporters in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. “They are clear, they are assertive and they are in line with Pakistan’s position.
“I can say to you clearly today: on the issue of Kashmir, Saudi Arabia does not have any difference of opinion [with Pakistan].”
So, what exactly happened?
‘Very out of character’
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have historically held very close ties, with the former dependent on the Gulf kingdom’s oil supplies and financial largesse in times of economic strife.
Last year, the two countries’ trade relationship totalled more than $1.7bn, of which 74 percent consisted of Pakistani oil imports from Saudi Arabia, as per Pakistani central bank data. In all, Pakistan imports roughly a quarter of its oil from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is also home to more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriate workers, whose remittances form a major portion of Pakistan’s incoming foreign reserves every year. Last month, Pakistanis resident in Saudi Arabia sent home more than $821m, roughly 30 percent of all remittances into the country, according to central bank data.
The two countries have also had close military ties, with Pakistan providing troops and training to the kingdom at its request.
“The military partnership with Pakistan is important to Saudi Arabia,” says Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the US-based Brookings Institution.
“And Pakistan’s population brings a venue for Saudi religious soft power and influence – Pakistan is the fifth largest country in the world, it is majority Sunni, and Saudi Arabia wants it squarely in its corner.”
Given the close ties, Afzal says Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi’s initial remarks were “very out of character for Pakistan”.
Moreover, the threat to convene a meeting bypassing the OIC “would directly undermine Saudi Arabia’s posture, and position, of leadership in the Muslim world”.
This is not the first time Pakistan has posited the possibility of an alternate bloc. In December, Malaysia hosted the Kuala Lumpur Summit, a group that rivalled the OIC and was initiated by Malaysia, Saudi rival Turkey and Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Khan pulled out of attending the summit at the last minute, and in later remarks attributed his decision to Saudi objections to the group.
Pakistan has also objected to growing ties between Saudi Arabia and India, Pakistan’s eastern neighbour, with whom it has fought three full-scale wars since both countries gained independence from the British in 1947.
On a visit to Islamabad in 2019 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) signed $20bn in projects with the South Asian country.
A visit to New Delhi immediately after saw MBS say he expected to invest more than $100bn in Pakistan’s regional rival. Saudi-India bilateral trade stands at more than $30bn.
In recent years, under MBS, a more pro-active Saudi Arabian foreign policy has seen countries such as Iran, Turkey and Qatar fall squarely in its crosshairs.
But could Pakistan pivot away from its historic sponsor?
“The issue really was challenging Saudi leadership of the Muslim world,” says James Dorsey, a Singapore-based academic and journalist who has studied Pakistan-Saudi ties for decades. “It would mean Pakistan hooking up with Turkey, Iran, Qatar and possibly Malaysia and Indonesia, three of which are Saudi rivals.”
That pivot, however, is unlikely to happen given current circumstances, says Dorsey.
“Pakistan needs energy supplies, finance and investment. The Saudis seem to have called finance and potentially energy into question given the lack of response to a Pakistani request for an extension of the delay in Saudi oil supplies,” he says.
Given Pakistan’s still tenuous economic prospects – the economy shrunk by 0.38 percent in the last financial year, the first time it has done so in more than 60 years – why pick the fight at all, then?
“It is a bit of a mystery,” says Almeida, the journalist.
“Conventional wisdom since Qureshi’s outburst on local TV is that the foreign minister got carried away – that he was likely tasked by the [Pakistani] military to diplomatically raise Pakistan’s concerns with Saudi Arabia, but delivered a message that in substance and tone was beyond the brief he was given.”
‘Delicately walk back’
Qureshi’s remarks this week, and an earlier Foreign Office (FO) statement, appeared at stark odds with those made earlier, and appear to signal a de-escalation in tensions, analysts have said.
“I think that [FO] statement, more than anything, suggests that Pakistan will not take the actions [the foreign minister] hinted at in his remarks,” says Afzal. “And it suggests that the Saudi reaction – including on the [Pakistani army chief’s] trip – has led Pakistan to delicately walk back Qureshi’s comments.”
Afzal says the Pakistani walk-back indicated that the country “does not have the option of [turning away from Saudi Arabia] in any significant way”.
Dorsey believes the tensions will continue to simmer, albeit in private rather than public.
“Both sides likely will want to downplay the spat and prevent it from escalating,” he says. “But even if the Saudis back down, it will leave scars.”
For Almeida, Pakistan has developed other foreign allies to rely on in times of economic distress – notably China, with whom it is building the $60bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – but the possibilities afforded by those relationships are not endless.
“The rise of China and the centrality of Pakistan to the Belt and Road Initiative has given Pakistan new strategic options,” he says. “China is believed to have provided emergency funds to Pakistan after the Saudis demanded a part of their loan back.
“[…] While surely neither Pakistan nor Saudi would want a rupture in ties, Pakistan is not as dependent on Saudi assistance as it may once have been.”
Afzal says Saudi Arabia appeared to have drawn a clear line in the sand and pushed Pakistan back across it.
“Pakistan’s expectations from the OIC and Saudi Arabia on Kashmir have now been tempered, and realism has set in on that front for Islamabad,” she says. “This ties Pakistan’s hands a bit on the issue of Kashmir’s autonomy.”
With that new boundary established, ties may soon resume at close to their previous tenor, she says.
“As long as Pakistan doesn’t push Saudi Arabia where it doesn’t want to be pushed (on Kashmir), the two countries can get past the spat.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.