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Pakistan forges closer ties with Saudi Arabia – and Iran isn't happy

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New relationships are being forged within Pakistan – and between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These relationships and their importance were captured in a single, compelling moment during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s February visit to Pakistan. As the world looked on, three men appeared to move in harmony. To the left of Salman was Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, while to the right was the head of Pakistan’s army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The three men were smiling and marching in step, surrounded by the trappings of Islamabad’s military pomp and ceremony.

For the first time in many years, Pakistan’s government and military leaders see each other as equals worthy of cooperation. In the past, they have often been at loggerheads. It is a relationship that brings a degree of stability to Pakistan, even during economic uncertainty and heightened tensions with India.

This new, more united Pakistan seeks to project itself through a revitalised foreign policy – one that can put troops and a diplomatic presence in the Gulf, while billions in Saudi aid and investment flow back into Pakistan and offer relief from the straitjacket of the troubled economy.

The new understanding established between Imran Khan and General Bajwa is a revolution in the state of the civil-military relationship in Pakistan. It has ended a decade of division in outlook between the two power bases on foreign policy and national security. And Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who told his audience to consider him “an ambassador for Pakistan”, is both a conduit for and a beneficiary of the relationship.

Repairing relationships

Historically, the Pakistani-Saudi relationship has largely been a personal affair between the leaders on both sides, taking on a strategic dynamic through security cooperation. This helped to ensure that the Pakistani military was an essential element in the Islamabad government’s regional manoeuvres. But since the ousting of Pakistani president Pervez Musharaf in 2008, the relationship has been unsettled. It fractured further in 2015, when Pakistan’s parliament rejected a Saudi request for troops to take part in its intervention in Yemen’s civil war – the Pakistani military had wanted to take a more diplomatic approach.

While the Saudis remained suspicious of Pakistan’s civilian leadership, the military made its own moves to repair the relationship. It assured the Saudis over Pakistan’s security commitments to the Kingdom and projected Pakistan as a strategic link between the Middle East and South Asia. This was a way to counter Islamabad’s isolation in the international arena and attract economic and political benefits from the Gulf. A strong relationship with Riyadh was also a means of balancing the power of Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, and preventing India from gaining the upper hand in the Middle East.

To this end, in 2017, Pakistan joined the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, which brings together the militaries of 41 Islamic countries to counter terrorist groups and their activities in the Muslim world. Pakistan’s retiring chief army general, Raheel Sharif, was appointed its commander-in-chief.

Pakistan’s 2016 participation in the “North Thunder” military exercise with Saudi Arabia and its allies as well as joint exercises between the special forces of both countries had already revealed an increased level of cooperation between the two countries. Islamabad cemented the reconciliation with the dispatch of more than 1,000 troops to the Kingdom, in addition to the 1,600 already deployed on a training and advice mission – making Pakistan the only country with a significant foreign force within Saudi Arabia.

Still, without strong ties between Pakistan’s military and the government in Islamabad, the repaired relationship was limited. The Saudis were not willing to make a significant financial investment in Pakistan without the assurance of a prime minister who would fully support the bilateral initiative.

But then, last August, Imran Khan was elected prime minister of Pakistan. And MBS, facing his own international tensions after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, soon travelled to Islamabad with a promise of US$20 billion in funds for Pakistan.

Shifting dynamics

The announcement of the Saudi largesse, and MBS’s dramatic announcement that 2,100 Pakistani labourers detained in Saudi Arabia would also be released, sent Khan’s popularity soaring within hours.

Khan’s election also changed the relationship between the Pakistani government and its military. After years of division, the military and civilian leaders are now on the same page vis-a-vis the country’s strategic outlook and there’s a high level of trust in the personal relationship between Khan and Bajwa.

The bolstered political-military axis within Pakistan, the much improved relationship with Saudi Arabia and the investment that has come with it, have helped ease a Pakistan still shaking from the turmoil and corruption of the past decade.

But Islamabad must also negotiate the wider geopolitical terrain. Renewed Saudi-Pakistan ties have not been well received in Iran, Pakistan’s neighbour and Saudi’s arch-rival in the Middle East. And this unease was compounded when 27 Iranian Revolutionary Guards personnel were killed in a bus bombing near the Pakistan border, just days before the crown prince arrived in Islamabad.

The attack was carried out by Baluch insurgents, but Tehran quickly blamed “Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which carry out these acts on orders from the US and the Zionist regime”. It then turned to Islamabad: “If Pakistan does not punish [the insurgents], we will definitely take reparative measures against this counter-revolutionary force in the near future.”

Then there was the escalation of Pakistan’s ongoing dispute with India over Kashmir. On February 26, Indian warplanes allegedly bombed Pakistan in retaliation for an attack by insurgents that killed 40 Indian personnel in the disputed area on February 14. Pakistan downed two Indian jet fighters and captured a pilot.

Khan offered political talks and Islamabad has returned the pilot, but tensions continue and several civilians and soldiers have been killed in ongoing border exchanges.

So, while relations have been repaired within Pakistan and between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, nothing has been resolved in the wider kaleidoscope of regional geopolitics. Khan may have forged a way forward with the Pakistani military, and they may have restored a partnership with the Saudi monarchy – but it remains to be seen how strong these bonds will prove to be if Tehran or Delhi create new instability in the near future.

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