Opinion

Saudi Arabia's Shocking Snub From Pakistan Is a Bonanza for China and Turkey

Pakistan’s foreign policy has a rule: Say yes to whatever comes out of a Saudi mouth. But last week, Pakistan slapped back. Why? And who will it really benefit?

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Oct, 15, 2019
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Oct, 15, 2019Credit: ,AP
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recently launched a shocking broadside at Saudi Arabia, the Gulf state with whom Islamabad has become increasingly close, let alone dependent on.

It was a sign of a new configuration in Pakistan’s foreign and economic policies which will have far wider repercussions: the pivot away from Riyadh, towards China and Turkey, is a recognition of a new global cold war, whose most explosive faultlines will include the border between Pakistan and India.

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Marking the anniversary of India revoking Kashmir’s special status last week, Qureshi issued a stark and unprecedented warning to Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). He demanded Riyadh categorically support Pakistan’s position on the long-disputed territory of Kashmir, threatening that inaction would force Islamabad to ally with other Muslim states over an issue that Pakistan has long framed as a "genocide of Muslims."

Conceding that he was saying something "much bigger than my stature," the foreign minister’s words for Saudi and the OIC were a remarkable departure from Islamabad’s erstwhile subservience to Riyadh, which has long prohibited Pakistan from any disagreement with the Saudis even in private meetings – and here the foreign minister was issuing warnings on national television.

Riyadh retaliated immediately, insisting Pakistan repay $1 billion for oil supplies that had previously been repaid in deferred payments. Who stepped in cover the debt with a last-minute loan? China. Six days after Qureshi’s TV offensive, Riyadh ended the loan and oil supply to Islamabad, despite Pakistan’s repeated requests for the renewal of the facility. 

Such was the magnitude of what Qureshi had said that anything barring his sacking would mean that the state – which in Pakistan translates into the all-powerful military, with complete control over its foreign policy – is fully behind the foreign minister’s claim, even if it is not clear if Pakistan thought through all the repercussions.

A week on, while the opposition parties have opportunistically looked to cash in on the apparent diplomatic curveball, the government’s own reaction has been to talk up relations with Saudi Arabia. But it has pointedly refused to backtrack on the foreign minister’s statement, maintaining that Pakistan would always "protect its interests."

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) office in Islamabad, Pakistan June 25, 2020
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) office in Islamabad, Pakistan June 25, 2020.Credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS

Even Qureshi’s own follow-up statements have dismissed the now evident turbulence in Saudi-Pakistan relations, and he has declined to offer even a hint of retraction of his original comments. 

Why would Pakistan risk what has up to now been considered the convenience and mutual interests of a Saudi sugar daddy, only 18 months after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon was treated to a hero’s welcome in Islamabad, an alliance for which Pakistan ditched its longstanding ties with Tehran? 

The reason is that Pakistan has forayed far too deep into its narrative on Kashmir – equating the current Indian regime with Nazi Germany perpetuating a Holocaust of a people that Islamabad claims as Pakistanis – to sit still diplomatically. 

Pakistan now realizes that military-sponsored pro-Kashmir song competition and an annual minute of silence won’t do, especially when the Imran Khan government is being accused at home of "selling out Kashmir." 

A supporter of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami party holds a placard in solidarity with Indian-administered Kashmir, Karachi on August 5, 2020.
A supporter of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami party holds a placard in solidarity with Indian-administered Kashmir, Karachi on August 5, 2020.Credit: AFP

Even so, regardless of diplomatic or domestic needs, a policy permanently etched in Pakistan’s foreign policy rulebook is to say yes to whatever that comes out of a Saudi mouth. 

Over the last two years alone, the incumbent Pakistani government has been told to verbally back the Saudi-founded so called Islamic Military Counter Terror Coalition (IMCTC), provide diplomatic support following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and snub a global Muslim summit in Malaysia over Saudi fears that it would rival the OIC.

During last year’s visit by MBS, Pakistan virtually peddled itself as a Saudi client state, signing $20 billion worth of deals, while allowing claims of Iran being the "world’s chief sponsor of terrorism" to echo from Islamabad. 

A Haaretz piece around this time last year alluded to other trial balloons for further planned reshuffles in Pakistan’s foreign policy rulebook, not least the idea of recognizing Israel.  

At the same time, instead of siding with Islamabad against New Delhi, the OIC invited India to attend its conference as a guest of honor. However, India’s move on Kashmir last August has pushed a rethink.

Pakistan’s desperation on Kashmir has been evident – especially since any explicit direction of cross-border jihadist ventures have been shackled by the threat of draconian financial sanctions by the anti-terror Financial Action Task Force, leaving the military establishment hoping for a Palestine-style intifada to explode. But any revision of relations with Saudi Arabia has, until last week, remained unthinkable.

A motorcyclist rides past a billboard displaying a picture of Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan declaring his support for Kashir along a street in Islamabad on August 4, 2020
A motorcyclist rides past a billboard displaying a picture of Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan declaring his support for Kashir along a street in Islamabad on August 4, 2020.Credit: AFP

This is especially true since Pakistan’s toeing of Saudi – and U.S. – lines on their mutual arch-enemy Iran has remained intact, as exemplified by the seizure of an Iranian ship at Karachi’s Port Qasim only last week. As recently as last week, Imran Khan was talking up his efforts to mediate between Saudi and Iran, which in the glossary of Pakistani diplomatic euphemisms means implementing Riyadh’s instructions. 

And Pakistan has gone even further domestically to signal its affiliation with the Saudi Sunni side: it just passed a blatantly sectarian anti-Shia "Protection of Islam" bill, condemning non-Sunni Islam, despite 20 percent of Pakistan's Muslim population, and many of its founding fathers, being Shia. That pushed the local Shia clergy to issue calls for nationwide protests two weeks ago. 

So many of Pakistan’s needs, ideological and economic – such as the $10 billion oil refinery to be built in Pakistan according to an agreement signed last year – are still fulfilled by Saudi Arabia. So for the Khan government to make such a drastic diplomatic reshuffle, they would have needed cast-iron backups on both fronts. Enter Turkey and China.

Turkey offers Pakistan not cash but clout, the promise of Erdogan’s internationally ambitious, Islamist-focused government amplifying Pakistan’s status in the Muslim world and its critical foreign policy issues. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and wife Emine at the historic Hagia Sophia, a day before its conversion from museum to mosque by presidential decree. Istanbul, July 23, 2020
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and wife Emine at the historic Hagia Sophia, a day before its conversion from museum to mosque by presidential decree. Istanbul, July 23, 2020.Credit: ,AP

Over the past 12 months, Pakistan has been actively rallying for the formulation of a new global Muslim bloc to be spearheaded not by Saudi Arabia but by Turkey, a faithful supporter of Islamabad on Kashmir. Internationally, this has found expression in the establishment of an "anti-Islamophobia channel" on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, and the Kuala Lumpur summit on Muslim unity and empowerment that Islamabad pulled out of (under Saudi pressure) at the 11th hour. Khan has committed to attending the next conference of the OIC rival.

It’s not only in foreign policy that Turkey’s weight is now felt. Pakistan is experiencing an explosion of Turkish pop culture, spearheaded by the hit TV show Ertugrul. Not only did Imran Khan request Pakistan’s state TV to translate and air the Turkish series which spotlights the battles and achievements of the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, he has recommended the show so that Pakistanis can learn about "our history and heroes." 

The Turkification of Pakistan even entered the realm of national identity, pseudo-science and mythology: for decades, Pakistanis have been taught, somewhat bizarrely, that they have Arab ancestry. Now, in place of that imaginary geneology, there are now clear efforts to fabricate a Turkish lineage for Pakistan’s people.

In China, where Islamabad has been increasingly putting all its proverbial eggs, Pakistan feels it has an economic lifeline. And it even has some leverage over the economic superpower: Beijing has no interest in jeopardizing its largest ever overseas investment, the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan’s rulers are more than willing to pay the cost of that investment, in the shape of ripping the heart out of local industries, and formalizing of political totalitarianism

And the all-powerful Army is fully aware that it can replace Saudi defense cooperation with China: both would be responsible for the security required to defend the multi-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs from China through Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, disputed territory that is part of the Kashmir conflict claimed by both India and Pakistan. 

A People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy soldier stands in front of a backdrop featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping during an open day at a naval base in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2019
A People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy soldier stands in front of a backdrop featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping during an open day at a naval base in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2019.Credit: TYRONE SIU/ REUTERS

Beijing now sees its economic interests served by backing Pakistan’s narrative on Kashmir, to ensure that the Gilgit-Baltistan region, gateway to the CPEC, remains firmly under Islamabad’s control and with free access by China.

And the Amy, always keen to spot an opportunity to monetarily profit at the cost of the country’s interests (fanning the Kashmir dispute flames helps inflate the annual defense budget increments,for instance) thinks it could still turn a profit.

And China may prove to be a better bet than Saudi Arabia on core international issues for Pakistan. Beijing continues to back Pakistan on Kashmir, and that support is more eager than ever since its border conflict with India started heating up, with military clashes just months ago. 

Furthermore, China is now seeking an active role in global conflicts, including Israel-Palestine, increasingly aiming to establish itself as the global power, while the U.S. is retreating from the Middle East. With the Trump administration ramping up its hostility to China – over trade and COVID-19

With the new cold war an indubitable reality, the Indo-Pakistan border, and Kashmir, could become one of its gravest fronts. And Islamabad seems to want to join the China camp.

Pakistan can now align its Islamist rhetoric towards a new Mecca: Turkey. That is critical for domestic consumption, and for the sustained production of jihadists, a key tool of its security and foreign policies.

In China, Islamabad has a fiscal and geopolitical behemoth, eager to spearhead political resolutions in both Afghanistan and Kashmir – the latter not just being another front to take on India, but also part of the disputed territory on which the China-Pakistan Econo­mic Corridor is literally being built. Just as long as Imran Khan doesn’t mention the Uighurs.

A cyclist passes a Happy Independence Day billboard with images of founder leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and national poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 13, 2020
A cyclist passes a Happy Independence Day billboard with images of founder leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and national poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Islamabad, Pakistan, Aug. 13, 2020.Credit: Anjum Naveed,AP

This potential China-Pakistan-Turkey alliance could even find room for Iran, which is closing in on a trade and military partnership with Beijing. Even though China is also getting closer to Saudi, the winds of the new cold war may force Riyadh to take sides, and ditch China for its longstanding ally in Washington. 

Pakistan’s ideal situation would be to rescue some normalcy in its bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia, but at the same time not to relinquish a leading role in a separate Saudi-rivalling Islamic bloc. With China and Turkey at its back, Pakistan can now prioritize Kashmir over Saudi Arabia.

And it can outsource its territory – and most conflicts – to China. Then Islamabad would no longer need the U.S. dollars, and Saudi petrodollars, which for the past four decades have dictated its domestic, security and foreign policies. Pakistan’s subservience to Saudi Arabia was never wildly popular at home. 

But the Imran Khan administration’s drastic realignment may well not lead to more substantial autonomy: it may just be a question of swapping one master for others, while embedding Pakistan at the epicenter of an increasingly tense global polarization.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The GuardianThe IndependentForeign PolicyCourrier InternationalNew StatesmanThe Telegraph MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune

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