A flawed sense of security

Issue 23 - Jan 2009
Bernard Haykel

SAUDI ARABIA has a special and close strategic relationship with Pakistan, somewhat similar to the one between the United States and Israel, but also with notable differences. This relationship is based on a shared Islamic identity, but more importantly on a history of co-operation and collaboration in the fields of security, intelligence and the military. The structure of the relationship, and in particular the dominance of its military and security aspects, do not serve either country’s long-term interests.

Saudi Arabia must develop a different and more constructive policy towards Pakistan—a policy that is centred on the stability, long-term prosperity and full democratic potential of its South Asian ally and not on opportunistic access to Pakistan’s military capabilities. The relationship from Riyadh is handled almost entirely by the Saudi intelligence and security services, and it is their particular agendas and concerns that trump those of other institutions of government such as the foreign ministry. It should therefore come as no surprise that the present Saudi ambassador in Islamabad, Ali Asiri, is a brigadier-general in the Saudi security services or that the principal Saudi interlocutor with Pakistan is Riyadh’s intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz. As a result, the view that Saudi Arabia has of Pakistan is skewed and is centred on the perceived mutual interests of the ISI and the army on the one hand and those of the Saudi security and intelligence services on the other. It is not necessarily the interests of the civilian government in Islamabad or the population of Pakistan that lie at the core of the relationship.

It is well established that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been close allies with respect to “Islamic” causes for many decades now. Riyadh strongly supported the Islamisation policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later recognised the Taliban government in Kabul. The Kingdom also provided support for Pakistan’s views and policies on the Kashmir conflict and generally sided against India, although it has, of late, supported the composite dialogue process and officially claims to seek stability and peace in South Asia. Saudi Arabia has over the years made significant financial investments in Pakistan and also provided subsidies, often in the form of oil shipments. And lastly, Riyadh has patronised and sponsored madrassas in which particular teachings of Sunni Islam are taught. 

It has also been alleged that the Kingdom has fostered Sunni-Shia strife in Pakistan. Even if it is true, this is unlikely to be a deliberate policy adopted by Riyadh but rather, the result of the influence of individual Saudi-based scholars and religious personalities who have stoked hatred for Shias everywhere. Most recently, though they have condemned the attacks in Mumbai, the Saudis have been reticent to press Pakistan on the issue of militant organisations operating within its territory and launching terrorist attacks against India.

What do the Saudis get in return for this support? Pakistan is a stalwart ally of the Kingdom in all Islamic and international forums, especially the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Muslim World League and the United Nations. The Pakistani armed forces have, since the 1960s, supported and even fought in Saudi Arabia against the latter’s enemies (the Marxists of former South Yemen, for instance). And Riyadh has purchased military hardware and training from Pakistan, and it is alleged, though not confirmed, that Saudi Arabia was involved in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon. Furthermore, the Saudis see Pakistan as a Sunni ally against Iran, a once implacable and now rejuvenated revolutionary foe with a competing Islamic ideology and regional ambitions. 

In short, Pakistan is a strong ally which can potentially provide military support in the event of Riyadh being threatened. Yet this view is belied by the fact that it was only the United States’ military might that could defeat the invading Iraqi army in 1990. Nonetheless, the Saudis continue to believe they can call on Pakistan for military aid and support, maybe even purchase an off-the-shelf nuclear weapon if the need arises, to create a balance of terror against Tehran’s potential nuclear capability. Because of this view it is the security and intelligence services in the Kingdom that have dictated the nature of the relationship.

It is often repeated by high-ranking Saudi princes that the key to Pakistan is the military (including the ISI) and keeping this institution from crumbling is the key to the country’s stability and continued alliance with Riyadh. A further refrain is that Pakistan’s military is dominated by Punjabi officers and it is therefore imperative that their concerns and wishes are satisfied. So for example, the Saudis are worried that Pashtun irredentism in both Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province threatens Pakistan’s unity and they adopt the view, no doubt shared by many Punjabis, that this sentiment must be stifled. They would like Afghanistan to provide assurances that the present border between the two countries is permanent and that Kabul will check all attempts at Pashtun aggrandisement. It should not be surprising that the Saudis have developed the closest relationship with Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi among the civilian leadership, because they feel that his being Punjabi is important for the overall stability of the country. It is alleged that the Saudis have involved Mr Sharif in lucrative business deals with some of their own wealthy protégés, such as the Lebanese politician Saad Hariri, to keep him on their side. In contrast, the Saudis feel uncomfortable with President Asif Ali Zardari, whom they see as corrupt and politically ineffectual when it comes to handling the military establishment. It is notable that the Saudi distaste for Mr Zardari even led them to be unwilling to bail out Pakistan from the serious economic crisis it was facing some months ago, feeling that any financial assistance provided would perhaps be pocketed by him.

The view from Riyadh is to see Pakistan as a source of ideological and military support, and is generally framed in terms of security considerations. Last year, when food prices were very high and there was talk of the Kingdom’s long-term food security, the Saudis discussed the purchase of large tracts of land in Pakistan’s Punjab that would be dedicated exclusively for the Saudi market (Thailand and the Sudan were other candidates for the same).

Clearly, the structural framework of Saudi-Pakistani needs to be rethought and taken away from the security and intelligence services in both Riyadh and Islamabad. For instance, it is imperative that both leaderships think of stability emerging from the establishment of a strong Pakistani middle class, a reformed educational system and a strong civilian government, not simply from a placated military or satisfied Punjabi officer cadre. It is also possible for India to play a role in this matter, by among other things, drawing Saudi Arabia into mega-project deals—oil refineries, for instance—that would be dedicated to the Saudi varieties of crude, and which would bind the economic interests of the two countries more firmly.

Saudi Arabia realises that India is an emerging super power in the region and that Pakistan’s star is waning. The question remains as to how long the established Saudi ways of dealing with Pakistan will stay alive. One unfortunate fact is that the large royal family in the Kingdom is both conservative and consensus-minded. This makes for exceedingly slow decision-making processes, which remain largely informal and centred on a highly personalised form of politics. Change of any kind does not happen quickly, and it is therefore unlikely that Saudi policy will change any time soon. At the present moment, however, the decision makers in Riyadh need to be reminded that the crisis in Pakistan is no less urgent than that in Israel-Palestine and that the bold Saudi peace initiatives that have been adopted in the latter need to be also tried in South Asia, urgently. The Kingdom, like many other countries, will not be immune from the terrible repercussions of a failed Pakistan.

Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University where he also directs the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.