by Ahmed Humayun
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz concluded a visit to Pakistan last week that was carefully orchestrated to signal the role Riyadh expects Islamabad to play in the wider Middle East. The two countries have long had strong ties but this trip underscores a deepening rapprochement— an escalation that will further embroil Pakistan, already bogged down by unprecedented levels of its own religious and political violence, into the sectarian turmoil ravaging the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia has long exercised a commanding influence in Pakistan. Political crises within Pakistani elites are more likely to be resolved in the golden halls of Saudi palaces than in Islamabad. When the country's current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was ousted from power in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, he was given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, which was also responsible for brokering Sharif's eventual return in 2007. The first foreign visit of the current army chief, General Raheel Sharif was to Riyadh in early February, and followed visits to Pakistan from the Saudi foreign minister and deputy defense minister.
Saudi Arabia's enjoys enormous ideological clout around the Muslim world as the ‘protector' of the holy cities in Islam.* More important, however, is its unrivalled petro power. Saudi Arabia has provided subsidized oil, bailed Pakistan out during severe financial crises, and funnelled more aid to Pakistan than any other non-Arab recipient since the 1960s. According to Pew, Saudi Arabia enjoys a 95% approval rating in Pakistan, the fruit of both a sustained propaganda campaign since the 1970s and the aspirations of successive Pakistani leaders who have sought out the Saudi embrace.
As the spate of recent visits between Riyadh and Islamabad demonstrates, an already well-cultivated relationship is about to get stronger. For Pakistan, diplomatically isolated and domestically weakened, growing closer to Saudi Arabia seems natural. The war in Afghanistan has soured Pakistan's relations with the United States: as Washington's drawdown from Afghanistan continues, and Washington's dependence on Pakistani supply lines gradually diminishes and eventually disappears, the prospects of continued flows of U.S. foreign aid are uncertain. Pakistani leaders endlessly tout their bond with the Chinese but Beijing is far more circumspect—the killing of Chinese nationals by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan, and concerns about links between militant groups and unrest in China's Xinjiang province, don't help. Saudi Arabia has oil money, a massive investment in the infrastructure of extremism inside Pakistan, domestic political legitimacy in the country—and it needs Islamabad.
Usually accustomed to getting its way the iron-fisted House of Saud has had a tough time in recent years. The Sunni Arab status quo in the Middle East has been severely shaken over the last decade with the replacement of the brutal Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein by the authoritarian Shiite rule of Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq, the regional influence of Iran's Shia theocracy, and the revolutionary tumult of the Arab Spring. But Riyadh's fears are now graver than they have ever been. Last November, in a wide-ranging interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Saudi billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal openly voiced Saudi Arabia's anger with the Obama administration, especially descrying Washington's nuclear deal making with Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, and its avoidance of military intervention in Syria against the Iran-allied, Allawite regime of Bashar-al Assad.
Saudi Arabia, therefore, is now increasingly looking to alternatives to Washington's muscle that can help reassert its dominance in a fast-changing region. Pakistan's nuclear weapons program has long been prized by Saudi Arabia, which views it as an invaluable insurance policy against a host of domestic and regional threats. While rumors of a secret nuclear agreement in which Pakistan's nukes are available ‘on order' from Pakistan by Saudi Arabia have been around since the program's inception, in the WSJ interview Alwaleed confirms that Pakistan would ‘nuclearize' Saudi Arabia if asked, underscoring his point by saying that “Nawaz Sharif, specifically, is very much Saudi Arabia's man in Pakistan.” (Alwaleed's bombast is actually somewhat understated: Saudi influence over the country's power structure extends far beyond individual politicians).
It's not just about the nukes though. The joint statement released by Riyadh and Islamabad touted their shared desire for “regional cooperation” and “supporting Islamic causes.” There is no mystery about the type of ‘Islamic causes' and the nature of the ‘support.' In the past, Pakistan has answered Saudi Arabia's call by recruiting and deploying former servicemen to quell Shia uprisings against Sunni autocracy in the Middle East, such as in Bahrain. And so we can expect the further entanglement of Pakistan in Arab civil wars and the consolidation of its alignment with Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies and dictatorships in their regional rivalry with Iran.
The Pakistani army is already being enlisted to train a vast rebel army, perhaps comprised of fifty thousand fanatical Sunni fighters, to fight Bashar Assad's regime. Whether Assad's vicious tyranny can withstand this rebel army remains to be seen but this is not the first time that the Sunni autocracies and Islamabad have come together, with U.S. support, to empower fundamentalists; such ventures typically don't end well. Apparently the hardline Sunni fighters taking on Assad are also targeting Al Qaeda elements who have hijacked the Syrian revolt, and who are a source of concern to Western intelligence agencies. If you are still reading and are perhaps confused, don't worry because so is everyone else. So what exactly is going on? To quote the Guardian: “The force excludes al-Qaida affiliates such as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, but embraces more non-jihadi Islamist and Salafi units.” One has to respect the ingenuity of that ‘more non-jihadi' formulation.
Either way, the Riyadh-Islamabad nexus is only going to become stronger. According to Pakistan's defense minister, “the defense of Pakistan and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the same thing. For us, it is a sacred duty.” Meanwhile, around the same time the Crown Prince was wrapping up his trip, Tehran warned Islamabad that it was contemplating sending soldiers into Pakistan to free border guards kidnapped by a Sunni militant group. The costs of Islamabad's entanglement with Riyadh are unlikely to be restricted to Middle Eastern battlefields.
* ‘Protecting', that is, when it is not destroying historic sites from the earliest days of Islam.