Nawaz Sharif in Saudi Arabia: Pakistan’s Leverage in the Gulf

Sharif owes big to Saudi Arabia, which sheltered him at the darkest moment of his political career.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: March 9, 2015 4:11:52 pm
m_id_431155_nawaz_sharif Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

It is not often that the King of Saudi Arabia receives visiting foreign dignitaries at the airport. That precisely is what King Salman did on Wednesday when he went to the Riyadh airport to lay out an ostentatious welcome to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

There is speculation that the Saudi Kingdom is seeking Pakistan’s military support to shore up its internal and external defences amidst mounting regional tensions. No announcements were made after Sharif met King Salman and other senior members of the Saudi Royal family. But security cooperation was reportedly at the top of the agenda.

Squeezed between Sunni extremism of the Islamic State on the one hand and the rising political clout of the Shia Iran on the other, the Saudis are apparently eager to cash in their many IOUs in Pakistan.

Sharif, of course, owes big to Saudi Arabia, which saved him sheltered him at the darkest moment of his political career, when Gen Pervez Musharraf ousted him in a coup and put him behind bars in 1999. The Saudis persuaded Musharraf to let Sharif out of prison and take exile in Jeddah.

Beyond the personal, the Saudis have always bailed Pakistan out of economic crises by providing oil and money at concessional rates. There have also been reports that Saudis finance Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapon programme that began in the 1970s.

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Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments tend to be quite deferential to the Saudi royals and allow them the kind of privileges that a sovereign government rarely extends to another. But the relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was never entirely one-sided.

The Pakistan security forces have long acted as a military reserve for the House of Saud. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Gen. Zia ul Haque sent Pakistani troops to bolster Saudi security. The size and scope of that deployment was never revealed.

Early last year, there was a Saudi ‘gift’ to Pakistan of $1.5 billion when Islamabad’s foreign exchange reserves sunk to a perilously low level. Analysts in the region linked this gift to requests from Riyadh for the recruitment and training of Saudi-backed Sunni militant groups fighting the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s regional security environment has gotten worse since then. Riyadh has been deeply concerned about the gains made by the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares a restive frontier. The Saudis are also anxious about the prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and America that might further boost Tehran’s clout in the Middle East.

As Pakistan gets drawn into the regional rivalries in the Middle East, Islamabad is of course conscious of the need to walk the tight rope between its long-standing benefactor Saudi Arabia and Iran with which it shares a long border.

Mounting attacks on the Shia minority in Pakistan by Sunni extremists has been poisoning the political atmosphere between Tehran and Islamabad for some time. There have also been frequent clashes between dissident Iranian Sunni militant groups that have taken shelter on the Pakistani side of the border and Tehran’s border security forces.

As Pakistan begins to gain new political leverage in the Gulf, the unfolding geopolitical dynamic in the Gulf has not drawn adequate attention in Delhi. Although foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has travelled to the region frequently and has hosted many senior leaders from the region in Delhi, the government of Narendra Modi appears some distance away from developing a coherent strategy towards the Middle East.

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