Saudis in Pak
In Pakistan, the expansive influence of Saudi Arabia is unmatched except occasionally by the Americans and Chinese. As a Wikileaks cable from the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad in 2007 told us that his embassy is not an “observer” in Pakistan, but a “participant” in Pakistan’s politics. This was not an empty boast. Saudis have often helped Pakistan manage difficult problems at home and abroad. Whether it is tidying over a balance of payments crisis, subsidising oil purchases, financing the nuclear weapons programme or resolving ticklish domestic political disputes, the Saudis always ride to the rescue of Pakistan.
When the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al Faisal landed in Islamabad this week, there was much speculation in Pakistan that the visit was about facilitating the exit of former president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, now facing a variety of charges in Pakistan. Recall that Saudis had given political shelter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he was ousted from power in an army coup and imprisoned by Musharraf in 1999. Under a deal brokered by the Saudis, Sharif agreed to stay away from Pakistan for 10 years. When an impatient Sharif broke that promise and flew into Pakistan, a Saudi plane was on the tarmac to fly him back. But when the Americans arranged a deal between Musharraf and Benazir in Bhutto 2007, the Saudis put Sharif back in the Pakistani play.
The House of Saud was always wary of the Bhuttos and suspected them of being empathetic to Shia Iran; but it has invested much in the Sharif brothers over time. With the tables now turned between Sharif and Musharraf, some in Pakistan were betting that the Saudis would now oblige Musharraf. When asked the question at a press conference in Islamabad, Saud al Faisal smiled and said the issue was Pakistan’s domestic affair and that his country does not interfere in the internal politics of other countries. He insisted that his visit had absolutely nothing to do with Musharraf.
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Diplomats are not paid to speak the truth in public. Even if he had discussed Musharraf’s future with Sharif in private, Saud al Faisal was not going to embarrass him in public. In any case, Saud al Faisal has a long list of concerns these days, and Musharraf is certainly not at the top.
A number of recent developments have put the Saudis on the back foot in the Middle East. These include the Arab Spring and the challenge to the existing order in the Middle East, the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sunni Arab world and the mounting challenge from Shia Iran in Syria and Iraq. On top of it all, the US-Iran interim nuclear accord and the prospects for a broader political reconciliation between Washington and Tehran has given Saudi Arabia the jitters. Making matters worse is the looming challenge of political succession at home when ailing King Abdullah, now nearly 90 years old, departs from the scene.
In fighting back, the Saudis have strongly supported the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, bolstered the minority Sunni regime in Bahrain, supplied money and weapons to the Sunni groups fighting the Assad regime backed by Iran, and offered $ 3 billion of aid to the Lebanese army to fight the Hezbollah. Amidst the growing distrust of the US and the absence of domestic capabilities to confront a rising Iran, the Saudis are determined to strengthen their regional alliances, especially the historic partnership with Pakistan. The nuclear dialogue between Washington and Tehran has already generated concerns that the Saudis will now demand access to the Pakistani nukes. While that scenario might be some distance away, it is not difficult to see that Riyadh has more immediate plans for Pakistan.
In what they see as an existential struggle against the rise Iran, Saudi Arabia has use for Pakistan army — from providing security to friendly regimes and training militants to fight hostile governments. Working out the details of a partnership to balance Iran might have been the main purpose of Saud al Faisal’s visit to Pakistan.
India, then, will have to deal with at least two implications. One is the growing importance of Pakistan in Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy. It will generate much leverage for Pakistan, as well as new complications for Islamabad’s ties with Tehran. As Pakistan gets sucked into the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the new sectarianism in the Middle East will inevitably cast its shadow on the subcontinent and undermine regional stability.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’