The Imran Khan government in Pakistan is trying to mend its ties with Saudi Arabia, which had hit a low last year. Does this mean Riyadh will change its stance on Kashmir?
While the Pakistan-Saudi relations hit a rough patch in 2020, both New Delhi and Riyadh strengthened their ties and pledged to work together in various sectors. All this while, Islamabad’s rhetoric on Kashmir has not found any takers among its allies, including Saudi Arabia.
In August 2020, cracks had surfaced in the Pakistan-Saudi relations after Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had asked the Riyadh-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to “stop dilly-dallying” on the convening of a meeting of its Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) on Kashmir.
Then again in October, Saudi Arabia had refused to allow Pakistan’s mission in the country to observe October 27 as a ‘Black Day’. Pakistan observes October 27 as ‘Black Day’ to mark the anniversary of the day (October 27, 1947) of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India.
However, now with ties getting back to normal between Islamabad and Riyadh, experts are speculating that Pakistan would like Saudi Arabia to support it on the Kashmir issue, which is unlikely to happen though.
In what is seen as Pakistan’s balancing act between the Saudi Arabia bloc and Turkey bloc, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recently visited Egypt to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his counterpart Sameh Shoukry and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit at the organization’s headquarters.
The visit is being seen as Pakistan’s wider efforts to mend ties with the Saudi bloc. Last year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had asked Pakistan to repay $4 billion in loans taken out in 2018. The UAE had also suspended the issuance of work visas to Pakistani nationals, as the country largely depends on remittances from nationals working in the Middle East.
All these pressure tactics seemed to have worked as following Qureshi’s trip to Cairo recently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE each rolled over loans of $1 billion to Islamabad. Furthermore, the plans for a $10 billion Saudi Aramco oil refinery in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar appeared to be moving forward.
Pakistan’s relations with the Turkey-Iran-Malaysia bloc, which challenges Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Muslim world, will not be affected by these developments, experts say. Lukasz Przybyszewski, a West Asia analyst for the Asia Research Centre at Warsaw’s War Studies Academy told Nikkei Asia:
“Islamabad is taking a multi-track approach in which new joint economic ventures and agreements with Turkey and Iran – such as a railway project involving Islamabad, Tehran, and Istanbul, and a gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan – are meant to balance its relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.”
Chinese Interest At Play?
There is also speculation that an improvement in ties between Riyadh and Islamabad has come following the change in administration in the US. President Joe Biden has announced that the US will no longer support the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the arms sales to the kingdom have been put on hold.
With the change in the US’ Middle-East policy, Riyadh may move towards the China camp and for Riyadh, the road to Beijing goes through a friendly Islamabad, analyst Syed Fazl-e-Haider writes for Lowy Institute.
The expert points out that there is already a ground for a strong Sino-Saudi strategic partnership as China is helping expand its nuclear program. While the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Kingdom’s economy, China being the world’s largest importer of crude oil may help Saudi Arabia.