The Saudi Overture

Spearhead Analysis – 18.02.2014

Saudi Officials Visit PakistanThe visit to Pakistan of the Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister is an important event with regional and even global implications. Without a doubt this visit is a sequel to the visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister a month ago and part of a broader Saudi policy thrust. This visit should, however, be seen in the context of a larger mosaic. This mosaic is formed by several recent situations and events.

The US experience of recent disastrous, costly and non-productive interventions has led to an inward looking consolidation type policy as is evident from the US stance on the ongoing situations in Egypt and Syria. Add to this the fact that the shale gas phenomenon is making the US energy secure with a corresponding decrease in its interest in the Middle East. The breakthrough in US-Iran relations is a landmark game changing event if it continues on a positive track which it is likely to. The US is considering the impact of Saudi sponsorship of the Sunni Al Qaeda linked factions in the Middle East and has no desire or motivation to take sides in the broader Sunni-Shia struggle within Islam — especially with its planned 2014 pullout from Afghanistan and the evolving relationship with Iran. Saudi displeasure and reservations on the US role has not had the impact that it used to have in the past. Pakistan remains an area of interest for the US because of its nuclear status and critical internal security situation. Russia is reviving its old contacts in the Middle East and China is focusing on securing its economic interests. India has returned to Iran and is developing Chahbahar port and overland transit facilities through Iran and Afghanistan even as it is denied overland transit through Pakistan to Central Asia.

Seen against the backdrop of this bigger picture the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince with a large team becomes significant. Pakistan is being weaned away from a meaningful relationship with Iran. The Iran-Pakistan Pipeline project has been shelved under US and possibly Saudi pressure. Iran has threatened Pakistan with intervention if a Wahabi linked terrorist group that carried out a recent attack in Iran is not stopped from using Pakistani space for attacks and if the attackers are not apprehended. Pakistanis remember the shift towards Saudi Arabia in the wake of the revolution in Iran that has had far reaching implications for Pakistan’s internal situation. Pakistan’s recent foreign policy statements have stressed the importance of good bilateral relations with all its neighbors including Iran and the driver behind this trend is trade that can boost Pakistan’s economy. Saudi Arabia does not figure in the US push for a new Silk Road and the idea of a maritime silk route as part of the look East policy orientation.

Besides support for urea and hydropower development projects Saudi interest will focus on defense cooperation. Pakistan’s JF 17 aircraft project and its Al Khalid tank project are very successful co-production ventures with China. China’s Z10 helicopter may be made available to Pakistan. Pakistan maintained an armored brigade in Saudi Arabia for training purposes for over eight years in the eighties. The basis and prospects for Saudi-Pakistan defense cooperation, therefore exist and could be easily revived. The Saudi–Pakistan relationship was lukewarm during the previous government in Pakistan but the new political leadership has always had a soft corner for the Saudis for many reasons. Pakistan will, however, have to carefully consider its own interests in the present environment and decide how far it can go without negative fallout.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual)