Gen Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan army chief and DG (ISI) Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who hot-footed to Riyadh to make amends for Pak foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s comments about seeking alternatives to the OIC, were refused an audience with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The two top functionaries of Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment were left to explain Pakistan’s position to the deputy minister for defence, Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Saudi Arabia is clearly cracking down, pushing to retain its top spot in the Islamic world. Pakistan doesn’t seem to get it yet.
For instance, Riyadh did not fail to notice that Qureshi held a meeting with Qatar’s ambassador at the same time that the army chief was in Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, Qureshi dashed off to Beijing on a “very important” mission, where he hopes to get the support that Saudi Arabia denied Pakistan.
Sources following events in Riyadh say the Saudis have denied any meeting on Kashmir. For Pakistan that remains the core of their foreign policies, sharpened after India abrogated Article 370 on August 5, 2019.
It isn’t as if Saudi Arabia has suddenly dropped the Kashmir issue, because of its growing relationship with India. That’s certainly a factor. But the Kashmir issue has lost some of its salience, because more pressing geopolitical considerations have intervened.
The crux of the problem appears to be Pakistan seeking to make Turkey the alternative Islamic power to Saudi Arabia, as well as trying to build a new Islamic group including Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan and Malaysia.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are locked in a battle for the Islamic world. Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and covert ties with Iran are at the core of that tussle. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also locked in a battle for supremacy in the Islamic world and geopolitically for the regional hegemony.
Saudi Arabia and UAE are at loggerheads with Qatar for similar reasons, given Qatar’s support to the Brotherhood as well as funds to Islamist proxies. Qatar is now the only outlier among the Gulf Arab monarchies, having teamed up with Iran, which makes Pakistan’s hobnobbing with them so difficult for Saudi Arabia.
The messages given to Bajwa were not pleasant. Pakistan would be expected to renounce any notion of an alternate Islamic bloc, as well as forming special ties with Turkey.
Pakistan stands to lose quite a bit — there is a Saudi promised investment of $20 billion in Gwadar which could be threatened.
Having refused to extend a relief package of oil supplies on deferred payment, Saudi Arabia could cancel the entire program. What would hurt Islamabad is, if Saudi Arabia sent back Pakistani workers and replaced them with Indians and Bangladeshis.
The kingdom has reportedly threatened to reduce funding to Pakistani madrasahs if Pakistan does not play ball — this message was conveyed to a visiting delegation of Islamic clerics from Pakistan led by Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chief of the All Pakistan Ulema Council to Saudi Arabia recently, if Pakistan continued to move towards Turkey.
The growing ties between the Gulf Arab countries and India is another important layer in this equation. India has welcomed the historic agreement between the UAE and Israel, which has been quietly endorsed by Saudi Arabia. In his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, Modi referred to the Gulf states as being
Islamabad has already been swirling with rumours about the impending removal of Qureshi from his job. But the Saudi threat is less for Qureshi than the army themselves, because Qureshi has long been believed to be close to the Pakistan army.
Most importantly, Riyadh has reportedly asked Islamabad to stay quiet on the UAE-Israel agreement.
This is important — Pakistan sees itself as a vanguard for Islamic concerns. For years Pakistan has equated the Palestine and Kashmir causes.
Even yesterday, Pakistan PM, Imran Khan told a TV interviewer, “Our role is to bring the Islamic countries together. We will not side with any country. I want to underline that Saudi Arab is our most important ally and there is no dent in our relations. We will not recognize Israel until they grant Palestinians their right on the basis of the “two-State” solution. The issues of Palestine and Kashmir are the same for us, and if we change our Palestine policy then we have no right to talk about Kashmir.”
Pakistan remains one of the most important members of the Islamic world, the only one with nuclear weapons. But Pakistan’s premier foreign policy interest is coming into conflict with the evolving nature of Gulf-Middle East politics.