Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Ayesha Siddiqa - A friendship fit for a king: 70 years of Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa examines 70 years of Pakistan’s ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in light of new archival material


In August 1947, the Arab Peninsula and the Gulf formed a lump of weak states that did not appeal as such to the founding father. He was, however, drawn to Egypt that had greater stability territorially at that time. In January 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had even written a letter to the Egyptian imam and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. “I am writing to you, the great Muslim leader, to inform you that I am determined, by God’s will, to save Pakistan from the tyranny of imperialism and the various hostile currents,” he wrote. “I have therefore decided to follow the advice you kindly gave me in your recent letter, that my government should assume a purely Islamic character and work in close cooperation with the other strong international Islamic organizations which are headed by your Ikhwan-al-Muslimun society [the Muslim Brotherhood].” Jinnah even asked al-Banna to send prominent Egyptian journalist Saleh El-Ashmawy to Pakistan so he could consult on how to build our Islamic government and build [the] idea of the Islamic league.”

As Pakistan commits 5,000 operational troops to Saudi Arabia to become part of its 33-nation counter-terrorism coalition, some Pakistanis wonder why we couldn’t just say ‘no’. It is felt that had it not been for the prime minister’s personal interests or our civil-military leadership’s hankering for oil at concessional rates and the lure of military support, we may have not considered joining an arrangement that could encourage greater internal insecurity and spoil relations with neighbours such as Iran. These points of view are not, however, the correct lens through which we can decipher developments in a bilateral relationship that is as strategic as the one we have with China but that is rarely talked about in detail. There is no other country in the world whose defence minister has been taken on a visit of our uranium-enrichment facility at Kahuta. But this was the case with Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdelaziz al-Saud, in 1999.

Unlike with China with whom our foreign policy-making community rates relations as the only ones that qualify as strategic, any description of Pak-Saudi linkages is relegated to the realm of the personal and is limited to engagement by either Zia-ul Haq or Nawaz Sharif. Perhaps the failure to categorize our relations with Saudi Arabia as strategic is based on the thinking that it never had military muscle to bail us out during a crisis. In reality, the foundation for Pak-Saudi ties was laid by interactions and interventions that date to the immediate time after the creation of Pakistan. In those days we concentrated on the Saudi state in a bid to position ourselves in the hierarchy of nations. The edifice of this bilateral relationship is erected on our insecurity when it comes to India, our urge to become part of a security relationship with the West (that was always justified on the basis of Pakistan playing a role in the Middle East defence architecture), and Pakistan’s historical traction towards pan-Islamism underpinned by her existential anxieties in the global geopolitical system.

It is only after combing through rare archival material that one realizes how central the Saudi state has been to our national imagination and geopolitical vision. Pak-Saudi relations are certainly not a one-way street… read more:

More posts on the history of Pakistan