Message from Mohammed bin Salman visit: It is Pakistan first

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 23, 2019

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Twitter @MEAIndia

The Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to New Delhi was historic, but perhaps only for the frankness with which Mohammed bin Salman never even pretended he was on the same page as India with respect to Pakistan.

MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, courteously stood by and listened as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made reference to the Valentine’s Day Pulwama attack. But for his part, MBS spoke only in vague terms about India and Saudi Arabia’s shared concerns on terrorism. In choosing not to join the dots, or to allow any explicit link to be made in his presence between Pulwama and Pakistan, the man who will be king of Saudi Arabia when his 83-year-old father passes sent a message. It is instructive and goes as follows: India and Saudi Arabia can certainly have a strategic partnership, as it’s being called. But there must be acceptance that its terms are circumscribed by a previous, long-term relationship. Don’t expect monogamy or fidelity. It’s complicated.

But really, how could it be otherwise? Pakistan, the world’s only Muslim nuclear state, has deep ties with Saudi Arabia going back decades. Islamabad helped fight the 1979 siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque; stationed military forces in Saudi Arabia during the Iran-Iraq war; collaborated with Riyadh in support of the mujahideen in 1980s Afghanistan; trained Saudi pilots and soldiers; and roughly this time last year, sent 1,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to add to the 1,600 already there. For the past two years, retired Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif has headed the Islamic Military Coalition against Terrorism, which is run out of Riyadh.

In return for Pakistani military help at strategic moments, the Saudis have provided direct financial aid. In Pakistan, just before visiting India, MBS signed investment deals worth up to $20 billion. In October, Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan a $6 billion loan to keep its ailing economy afloat. As Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said in his first speech after winning the July election, Saudi Arabia is “a friend who has always stood by us in difficult times”.

But it was in May 1998 that the Saudis made their most crucial and significant offer to Pakistan. With the promise of 50,000 barrels of free oil a day to offset the effect of expected Western economic sanctions, Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan the nerve to proceed with nuclear tests in response to those of India. With that, Riyadh changed the dynamic in South Asia and enabled Pakistan to assume outsized importance in the Muslim world.

Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power is enormously important to Saudi Arabia. Yoked together by religious faith as well as their own, very real national needs, nuclear-armed Pakistan gives Saudi Arabia heart, nerve and sinew. There is a mutual understanding Pakistan will spring to Saudi Arabia’s defence in the event of any threat to the House of Saud and Muslim holy sites.

According to Yoel Guzansky, formerly in Israel’s national security council and now a researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, Pakistan seems to have granted a “nuclear umbrella” to Saudi Arabia.

That symbiotic relationship will continue at least until one of the parties finds it needless and constraining. Might it be the point at which Saudi Arabia itself acquires nuclear capability? This is a worrying prospect in terms of nuclear non-proliferation, but it no longer seems far-fetched. A new report released by Democratic members of the US House of Representatives shows that some within the Trump administration have been pushing for the export of nuclear weapons technology to Saudi Arabia. While that is controversial and still no more than a nebulous plan to circumvent US policymaking processes on nuclear exports, there is no telling what might happen, if and when it does.

In essence then, it is ‘Saudi First’ policies that direct Riyadh’s reckoning of how to deal with Pakistan and India. Right now, it is a transactional three-way equation. In India, MBS simply reiterated the terms of the deal. It really was a historic visit in that it was a page out of a textbook, simply reprising the way things have been for quite some time.