Pakistan and the Arab Gulf countries have long enjoyed close relations, underpinned by cultural affinities and a sense of shared destiny as Sunni Muslims. Pakistan remains a largely poor and underdeveloped country but with a population growing to more than 215 million, an advanced nuclear arsenal and powerful military, it is a country not easily ignored.
The Arab Gulf, on the other hand, has at least one-third of proven global oil reserves, two of Islam’s most sacred sites and likely the keys to the Middle East’s future.
Pakistan-Arab Gulf ties are largely based on unwritten rules. Strategic pacts, where they exist, do not delve into detail. For Pakistan, the Arab Gulf has been the only region of the world where it has enjoyed favour almost without question and, often, generous financial assistance. In return, Arab Gulf countries have maintained an expectation that Pakistan will lend its weight where and when their core interests are threatened.
Perhaps the most successful Pakistan-Arab Gulf effort was, together with the Americans, in forcing the Soviet retreat of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Since then, Pakistani troops have manned Saudi borders with Iraq and its retired officers have helped quell unrest in Bahrain. Earlier, oil-rich Arabs provided different kinds of support to Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Pakistan estimates it has trained some 10,000 servicemen from Saudi Arabia.
Historically, the Pakistan-Arab Gulf relationship has indeed been special.
Recently, the Pakistan Army announced it would send a 1,000-person contingent of trainers and advisers to Saudi Arabia, joining at least 1,600 Pakistani servicemen deployed there. The development follows the second visit in two months of General Qamar Bajwa, the Pakistan Army chief, to Saudi Arabia.
The rule of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz have coincided with a revision of Saudi security policy generally but in particular with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has rekindled ties with the Pakistan Army through sustained key leader engagements and largely pulled away from Nawaz Sharif, once Riyadh’s point man in Pakistan, who was ousted as prime minister.
As the Saudi-led intervention began in Yemen in 2015, Riyadh was upset by Pakistan’s reluctance to join the campaign. Pakistan instead offered itself as a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran, an offer that, as expected, garnered little interest.
Pakistan did, however, reiterate a commitment to protecting Saudi territorial integrity and the security of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Since then General Raheel Sharif, formerly Pakistan’s Army chief, has become commander of the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh, one of King Salman’s most important initiatives.
The Arab Gulf’s hastening courtship of rival India, the Saudi-Iranian cold war, the Saudi-led quartet’s boycott of Qatar and the Saudi-led intervention into Yemen have created new dynamics in Pakistan-Arab Gulf ties.
Pakistan continues to seek a balance. The announcement from Pakistan came only after Bajwa took into confidence the envoys of Iran and Turkey and made a low-key visit to meet with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Three months ago, Bajwa became the first Pakistan Army chief to visit Iran in more than two decades, resulting in plans for deeper defence cooperation.
Pakistan’s strategy to not take sides in the Middle East’s power competition while being attentive to important bilateral relationships has largely worked. To some extent, it may be Chinese influence rubbing off. Under the China-Pakistan economic corridor programme, China will invest as much as $62 billion in Pakistan. An estimated $27 billion in projects are under way or completed.
In that context, deteriorating ties with India and a broken-again relationship with the United States provide no strategic rationale for Pakistan to change course.
Pakistan will continue pursuing its Middle East interests as an outsider but anticipates its strategic influence to grow naturally. There has been speculation for many years that China was seeking a naval base on Pakistan’s southern coast to project power. Recent reports suggest China will develop its second overseas naval base at Jiwani, 80km from Gwadar port. A Chinese naval base in Jiwani could well be the closest China can get to the oil-rich Arab Gulf and for monitoring some of the world’s most important maritime trade routes for energy supplies.
Pakistan remains as relevant as ever to Arab Gulf security but in a distinctly new emerging context.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.