Pakistan Reiterates Support For Saudi Arabia
Saudi FM and Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif (Image credit: Dawn)
NEW DELHI: Pakistan, that has repeatedly found itself in a tough spot over its relationship with Saudi Arabia, assured support to the monarchy on Thursday.
“People of Pakistan held the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in high esteem and also had deep respect for the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. … (they) will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Saudi Arabia against any threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Saudi Foreign Minister Dr Adel Al-Jubeir, who was visiting Islamabad.
Following Jubeir’s visit, the two countries released a statement on regional and global issues of common concern and agreed on promoting multi-faceted cooperation. The Saudi FM also met with Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif and Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz.
Jubeir is in Pakistan as Saudi Arabia has cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, and Sharif and the Saudi FM also discussed a multinational coalition against terrorism that Saudi Arabia announced in December last year. The coalition was a point of friction in Pakistan, as officials in the country first denied involvement, going as far as to say that Pakistan had never been consulted on the decision. Officials changed their stance a day later, confirming the country’s inclusion, in what has become a characteristic vacillation given Pakistan’s stance with Saudi Arabia.
Given the above context, various political parties held protests during the Saudi FM’s visit, in opposition to Pakistan’s decision to join the alliance against terror and the kingdom’s execution of cleric Sheikh Nimr, which was the flashpoint that led to severing relations with Iran. Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution, with Saudi Arabia responding by cutting off ties with Iran and giving the country’s representatives 48 hours to leave the country.
This played out in Pakistan, with the FO having to cancel a planned joint press conference by Aziz and Jubeir, in order to avoid possible media questions on the political developments.
Pakistan also reaffirmed support for Saudi Arabia’s coalition against terrorism, with Sharif saying, ““Pakistan welcomes Saudi Arabia’s initiative and supports all such regional and international efforts to counter terrorism and extremism.”
The 34-nation alliance was announced by Mohammed bin Salman, the country's defence minister and deputy crown prince. It includes, in addition to Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, the Palestinians, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. A notable exception was Iran.
"It is time that the Islamic world take a stand, and they have done that by creating a coalition to push back and confront the terrorists and those who promote their violent ideologies," said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi's foreign minister, speaking in Paris.
When asked whether the alliance would deploy troops on the ground, al-Jubeir replied, “nothing is off the table.”
This is obviously worrying for Pakistan as its relations with Saudi Arabia had dipped significantly over the question of Pakistan’s involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen. Pakistan found itself having to walk a tightrope between its close ties with the Saudi monarchy and the costs of involvement. Eventually, the Pakistani Parliament voted in favour of a resolution affirming the country’s “neutrality” on the conflict in Yemen in April this year.
The call for neutrality had its own complications as it evoked a sharp reaction from Saudi allies, with the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs warning Pakistan that it would pay a “high price” for its “ambiguous stand”. Although there was no other public consternation, analysts agree that behind-the-scene pressure from other Arab capitals prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to overstep protocol and issue a clarification of sorts. Sharif appeared in front of cameras in the company of his ministers and advisors and reiterated Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia.
“Pakistan does not abandon friends and strategic partners, especially at a time when their security is under threat,” Sharif said. “We are also in touch with other GCC countries to assure them that their disappointment was based on an apparent misinterpretation of parliament’s resolution,” the Prime Minister added. In what may be seen as an attempt to offer an olive branch to the Saudis, Sharif condemned the overthrow of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and referred to the Houthis as rebels -- the language here being at variance with the resolution that stressed on neutrality.
The difficulty was evident as Pakistan could not afford to ignore Saudi Arabia’s request, given its close relations with the Saudi monarchy. In addition to being allied in terms of Sunni sectarian identity, Pakistan continues to receive much-needed financial assistance from Riyadh. Last year, for instance, Pakistan reportedly received $1.5 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia to meet debt obligations and bolster its foreign exchange reserves. History, too, is indication of Pakistan’s commitment to Saudi Arabia. In 1990, Pakistan agreed to join an international coalition in defence of Saudi Arabia against Iraqi aggression.
A meme that was widely circulated puts a humourous spin on a very real reality of close ties and dependency:
At the same time, however, Pakistan had to be careful of its own relations with Iran -- with whom it shares a border and who reportedly support the Houthi rebels -- and it had to be mindful of not overextending the Pakistani army, that is already embroiled in a military offensive within the country’s own borders.
After months of tensions, things seemed to be improving between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as Pakistan's chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, visited Riyadh in November and held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman.The Saudi and Pakistani media welcomed the meetings as a thaw in the somewhat freeze.
With the declaration of the alliance and Pakistan’s inclusion, things were again up in the air as Pakistan initially denied being consulted.
With the latest visit to Islamabad by the Saudi FM, Pakistan seems to have cleared its stance -- its loyalties, unsurprisingly, lie with Saudi Arabia. How this plays out internally, where opposition will remain strong, is to be seen…