Pakistan and Gradual Cooling of Relations with Saudi, UAE

Strategic Council Online - Pakistan’s relations with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have entered a new phase since the inauguration of Imran Khan, the Chairman of the ruling party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Prime Minister of the country, in 2018. Mohammad Reza Asgari Moroudi – Senior Expert on Asia

Imran Khan, who faced various economic challenges at the beginning of his tenure as Pakistan’s prime minister, including lack of funding, followed a recurring foreign policy practice of the country over the past few decades by seeking to win the favour of Saudi Arabia to help Islamabad.

Choosing Saudi Arabia as the first destination of his foreign trip in the capacity of Pakistan’s prime minister showed that the Chairman of the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, like previous governments, including Nawaz Sharif, the former leader of the Muslim League-Nawaz, has taken steps on the path of cooperation with Riyadh to benefit from Saudi aid with an aim of solving economic problems of Pakistan.

Following Imran Khan’s first official visit to Saudi Arabia, the King of that country responded positively to the Pakistani Prime Minister’s request for financial assistance to that country.

Saudi officials, who for the first time faced Imran Khan at the highest position of Pakistan’s political power, hoped he would support Riyadh’s controversial plans in the region, including the war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to take part in the Yemen war in 2015, when the ruling Muslim League-Nawaz was in power in Pakistan, which was opposed by the Pakistani parliament.

As Imran Khan came to power in 2018, Riyadh officials hoped to be able to force Pakistan to participate in the Yemen war in return for economic and financial aid to Pakistan, but this time again Saudi Arabia failed in its attempt.

The re-emphasis of the Pakistani parliament on non-participation of the country’s army in the Yemen war proved once again that even the change in the composition of the members of the parliament after the 2018 elections had no effect on Pakistan’s previous position on opposing genocide in Yemen.

Pakistan’s negative response to Saudi Arabia in dispatching troops to the war in Yemen was the first challenge between the two countries during Imran Khan’s term.

In 2019, with the escalation of violence by Indian security forces in Kashmir, especially the abolition of special autonomy in that region, Pakistan, which is at the forefront of defending Kashmir, began its regional and international efforts to push New Delhi back from its decision. Islamabad expected Riyadh to condemn the acts of violence in Kashmir as a major Islamic state, where the permanent secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is located.

Despite this expectation, Saudi Arabia refused to enter the Kashmir violence case because of its 27 billion dollars economic ties with India, being New Delhi’s fourth largest trading partner, and this issue widened the gap between Islamabad and Riyadh.

Of course, in addition to the significant impact of Saudi Arabia’s economic relations with India which prevented Riyadh from accepting Pakistan’s request to condemn New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir, retaliation in response to Pakistan’s non-participation in the Yemen war is considered as another reason for Saudi silence on Kashmir violence. In view of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is an ungrateful recipient of economic aid.

Following a marked divergence in Saudi-Pakistani relations, Pakistan’s booming relations with the UAE in recent weeks also cooled down with the normalization of Abu Dhabi’s relations with the Zionist regime.

Abu Dhabi’s move was met with a backlash in various Islamic and non-Islamic countries after the UAE became the first country to announce its readiness to normalize relations with Israel under US pressures.

In Pakistan, popular groups and parties staged mass demonstrations in various cities across the country, condemning the UAE attempt to normalize relations with Israel, and Imran Khan and the PTI government blamed Abu Dhabi for the decision and reiterated their continued support for the Palestinian cause. Especially, since the Prime Minister of Pakistan explicitly stated that he will never recognize Israel.

Of course, it should be noted that the UAE, which along with Saudi Arabia participated in the failed anti-Yemen coalition, had strongly criticized Islamabad’s policies due to Pakistan’s unwillingness to participate in the Yemen war, which is considered as a breeding ground for tensions between Abu Dhabi and Islamabad.

Although Imran Khan and the Pakistani government in the case of normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel only emphasized non-recognition of the Zionist regime, this did not attack the policy of Abu Dhabi.

Despite experiencing power for the first time, Imran Khan did not take part in the Yemen war with a kind of intelligence influenced by the discourse governing over public opinion in Pakistan, and in the issue of normalization of the UAE relations with Israel implicitly blamed Abu Dhabi’s measure and reiterates defending the rights of the Palestinian people.

Imran Khan’s stance on Pakistan-Saudi relations is based on national interests which have cast a shadow over Islamabad’s relations with some Arab countries.

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