EYE ON THE WORLD

Payback time for Pakistan as Saudi bills come due

Pakistan's ties with Saudi Arabia are hidden, but will one day be as potent and strategically significant as its alliance with China.

WAS it a yes, a no or a "perhaps later"? For the past two weeks, Pakistan was locked in an anguished debate over how to respond to an appeal from Saudi Arabia for troops to fight in the war now raging in Yemen.

When the Saudi appeal first came, it seemed that the dispatch of Pakistani soldiers to the Gulf was imminent: "Any threat to the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia will be met with a firm response," read a communique from Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

But soon thereafter, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry issued a denial that any of the country's military was engaged in Yemen, although the Pakistani flag continued to fly alongside that of Arab nations at the Saudi-based headquarters of Yemen operations.

This "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" game ended only when Pakistan's Parliament voted against the dispatch of troops. Still, the episode shed light on the murky world of Pakistani-Saudi relations, a link which looks destined to shape the security map of the Middle East for years to come.

Bereft of friends and under a constant fear of being dwarfed by India, Pakistani politicians have a tendency to over-hype every alliance their country forges. "Higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey" was how one senior Pakistani diplomat described relations with China, struggling to pile in as many euphemisms as he could think of.

"Unique, unparalleled in the history of sovereign nations" is how Pakistani politicians routinely refer to their links with Saudi Arabia.

However, while the Sino-Pakistani link remains overt and powerful as today's arrival of President Xi Jinping in Islamabad indicates, the ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are still well-hidden from publicity, although they will one day be just as potent and as strategically significant as the Pakistan-China alliance.

Saudi-Pakistani relations took off during the 1970s due to a variety of reasons which include the natural affinity between big Islamic states, Pakistan's ability to export labourers to the Gulf and the US-led response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which transformed both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan into the Cold War's front-line states.

From the start of this relationship, two things were clear: That Saudi Arabia viewed Pakistan as a unique military partner able to plug the desert kingdom's inherent security vulnerabilities and, second, that the Saudis were determined to cement this alliance through the funding of a vast network of personal, commercial and business partnerships which ultimately drew in most of Pakistan's ruling elite.

Saudi Arabia bankrolled large chunks of Pakistan's nuclear programme precisely because the Saudis saw it as their own route to eventual nuclear power status, should Iran acquire such a capability. It was a secret Saudi guarantee to provide 50,000 barrels of free oil per day which reassured Pakistan that it could undertake its first nuclear test in 1998. Saudi credits also allowed Pakistan to withstand the economic sanctions which followed. The man who was central to Pakistan's nuclear decision-making at the time is the same Mr Nawaz Sharif who rules the country's destiny today.

But Saudi Arabia's support for Mr Sharif is also of a more personal nature. During his decade-long political exile, it was the desert kingdom which provided him with home and the necessary financial resources to continue his activities. To this day, Mr Sharif's son remains in Saudi Arabia, where he is prominent in local business.

The Saudi largesse goes much further: At key points during the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf, all of Pakistan's exiled politicians were hosted by the Saudis, or offered indirect financial support. The Saudis understood that an alliance with Pakistan works best when that country's national interests coincide with the private interests of its politicians.

But, while until fairly recently the Saudis were content not to ask for much in return, now they are beginning to demand their payback. In 2011, when Bahrain's royal family was critically endangered by local Shi'ite protesters who had Iran's encouragement, it was Saudi Arabia which put pressure on Pakistan to send thousands of Pakistani ex-policemen and soldiers to Bahrain to quell the revolt. During the years which followed, Pakistan was also asked to provide training and equipment for a variety of Saudi-financed fighters in Syria and Iraq.

But it was the recent demand to supply Pakistani troops for the war in Yemen which plunged Pakistan into its biggest dilemma. It is easy to see why the Saudis turned to Pakistan for help. Saudi Arabia wants to portray the fight against the Shi'ite rebels in Yemen as a confrontation between the whole of the Muslim world and Iran, which supports the rebellion in that country, and the inclusion of Pakistan into such a coalition helps.

The Saudis may also need Pakistan's troops, should they opt for a land invasion of Yemen. But from the Saudi perspective, the most important advantage of Pakistan's engagement in the Yemen conflict is strategic: It will act as a reminder that, while Iran attempts to corner Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia can also corner Iran from the east, with the help of Pakistan, which shares a 900km border with the Iranians.

The snag for Pakistan is that any overt involvement in Saudi Arabia's wars will impose a heavy cost. After Iran itself, the largest concentration of Shi'ite Muslims is in Pakistan, where they account for around 26 million out of the country's 190 million inhabitants. Pakistan is already suffering from unprecedented levels of sectarian violence, and that would clearly intensify if the country's rulers are seen as engaging directly in the Sunni-Shi'ite war which now tears the Middle East apart.

Iran can also retaliate against Pakistan at little cost to itself, by encouraging mayhem in Afghanistan, and cross-border incursions into Pakistan itself; these are the well-honed techniques by which the Iranians have expanded their influence throughout the Middle East. That will bring closer the nightmare Pakistan's military planners fear most: Instability on all of the country's borders at the same time.

Besides, even if Pakistan was prepared to take such risks, its armed forces are overstretched: According to Western intelligence estimates, up to half of Pakistan's soldiers are currently engaged in active operations against insurgents inside the country, imposing great strain on resources and combat-readiness. For all these reasons, Pakistan had to decline Saudi Arabia's appeal for help.

The Pakistanis are trying to sweeten the pill of their refusal: Prime Minister Sharif sent his close aide Sartaj Aziz and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province, to meet Saudi leaders in order to reassure them that, despite the refusal, Pakistan remains Saudi Arabia's loyal ally.

And, according to Mr Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Pakistan has also offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the effort could mirror the mediation efforts which Pakistan undertook with great success between the US and China at the height of the Cold War.

But neither the Saudis nor the Iranians are in any mood for negotiations, so mediation offers will get nowhere. Meanwhile, the Pakistanis seem destined to come under heavier pressure from their Arab allies: A minister in the United Arab Emirates has already publicly threatened that Pakistan would "pay a heavy price" for its continued neutrality.

Nor can it be excluded that, sooner rather than later, the Saudis will address to Pakistan the demand Pakistani leaders fear most: A request for the transfer of nuclear weapons know-how.

The Pakistanis have spent decades hoping to have their cake and eat it, assuming that they can get Saudi financial help with no strings attached. They are now discovering that, sadly, bills do have to be paid. And they won't be allowed to get away with too many additional refusals for paybacks.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com