There is no doubt that the existing relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are very strong. However, due to the evolving strategic environment in the region around Afghanistan, in the Gulf region due to the interest of extra-regional powers and ongoing implications of the Arab Spring, this is the most suitable time to move fast in developing a strong politico-economic partnership between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Before suggesting possible areas of cooperation and ways of building strategic friendship, it is appropriate to discuss some dominant factors that favour the building of such a relationship. The evolving situation in Afghanistan in the post-US withdrawal scenario needs deeper cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This cooperation is required for facilitating and supporting the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process involving all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
In this context there are many challenges such as convincing the Taliban to agree to talks, preventing chances of infighting in Afghanistan, involving the neighbours of Afghanistan in working for peace rather than increasing their influence in Afghanistan at the cost of other countries, and assisting Afghanistan in running its economy after the US withdrawal. Saudi Arabia is worried about the implications of the improvement of relations between the US and Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal signed between the P5 Plus One and Iran since Iran might be preferred over Saudi Arabia in exercising regional influence. In this context, Iran’s dominant role might help it in influencing conflict resolution in Syria, which might be detrimental to the interests of Saudi Arabia. To avoid such a scenario, it will be necessary to build trust and understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran for which Pakistan’s mediatory role will be valuable. To reduce existing differences between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the Syrian conflict and situation in Egypt, Pakistan’s mediatory role might be quite useful. To dilute its differences with the US over the Syrian issue, Saudi Arabia also needs the politico-strategic support of its friends like Pakistan.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, to strengthen its weak economy and address its direly needed energy shortages, it needs Saudi investment and enhancement of mutual trade relations. Moreover, Pakistan also needs to build strong and durable friendships in the Gulf region to neutralise Indian efforts to create deeper economic and strategic ingress in the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is likely to be detrimental to Pakistan’s economic strategic interests in the long run. This is evident from the Indian strategy of building stronger economic and trade relations with the Gulf countries and displaying its strategic power by enhancing the range of its nuclear-capable missiles beyond South Asia and naval power through friendly naval contacts to show to those countries that India might be useful to them in times of tension in the Gulf region and any difficult implications of the Arab Spring. By doing so, India wants to limit Pakistan’s political support on issues like Kashmir and also desires to undermine its options to gain economic benefits in the shape of investment and trade. In view of these aforementioned factors, it can be said that to face the evolving difficult political scenarios in the regions around Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to protect and advance their strategic interests, it is imperative for both countries to build a very strong and durable strategic friendship for the times to come. For building such a relationship, both countries seem to be ready. This is evident from the statements of Saudi Arabia‘s foreign minister given during his recent visit to Pakistan. He has clearly stated that Saudi Arabia wants to cooperate with Pakistan on Afghanistan and wants to heavily invest in Pakistan’s energy and other sectors. He has also suggested the formation of a committee to review Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations with the view to take them to further heights. He has also stressed that both countries should develop deeper cooperation on all strategic matters. In this context, with a view to expanding its economic and strategic options in the neighbouring regions, it is necessary that Pakistan take immediate major steps in upgrading its existing strong relations with Saudi Arabia to the politico-strategic level.
For building a very long and enduring mutual strategic relationship, both countries should undertake the following major steps. Both should devise a common strategy on facilitating Afghanistan’s reconciliation process. To coordinate their efforts in this context, both should formulate a consultative group including Afghanistan. Pakistan should also initiate steps to narrow down political differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Both countries should also sign related agreements on trade and investment oriented economic cooperation. On the strategic plane, both countries should conduct well thought out and sustained negotiations to craft and sign a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement. This should include the provisions for regular politico-strategic consultations and well coordinated policy actions on all international matters of mutual significance. Both countries should sign agreements for mutual investment in each other’s countries. Whereas Pakistan should assist Saudi Arabia in strengthening its defence capabilities, Saudi Arabia should help Pakistan in addressing its economic and energy issues. In the overall context, the agreement of strategic partnership should encompass mutual cooperation in all matters of politico-economic and strategic significance at regional and international levels.
The writer works for Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Islamabad