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Pakistan's house of cards may be failing, with Gulf states openly moving closer to India

News Agencies | Updated on: 2 September 2020, 9:41 IST

Amid an increasingly polarised Muslim world, Pakistan's strategy to maintain diplomatic ties with countries in the Middle East is no longer working.

In a break from the past where the Gulf countries balanced their relations with Pakistan and India, they are now seen moving towards New Delhi and distancing from Islamabad, according to a report in the Al Jazeera.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is seen moving closer to Turkey and Malaysia - two countries that Saudi Arabia sees as challengers to its stronghold within the Muslim world, according to foreign policy analysts Abdul Basit and Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed writing in the Al Jazeera.

The relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, went haywire last month when Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi openly rebuked the kingdom for its lack of support for Islamabad's interests on the Kashmir issue.

During a television talk-show, the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi made a statement that irked the Saudi "big brother", where he said that Pakistan would be "compelled" to "call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir."

In Basit and Shahab Ahmed's article, the remark by Pakistani Foreign Minister was not taken well by Riyadh and was seen as a veiled threat to concoct a new side against the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

In retaliation, the kingdom was quick to request the sudden repayment of a billion-dollar loan extended to Pakistan in November 2018, which was renegotiated just six months ago. Besides this, it also refused to renew a deferred oil payments scheme that was part of the same loan which was given to Islamabad when the country was trying to avoid a possible sovereign default.

After Riyadh raised the bar, Pakistan was forced on a back foot. Thereafter, Qureshi, trying to save face, refuted reports that ties have strained between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the past few weeks. "The kingdom has neither asked Islamabad to return its loan nor has it suspended oil supply to Pakistan," Qureshi was quoted as saying by The News International.

As a result of Qureshi's backtracking, Pakistani journalists slammed the Foreign Minister saying it contradicted the comments he made earlier.

Soon after, Pakistan went into damage-control mode and had to send Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Riyadh. However, the visit turned out be futile as the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) did not meet Bajwa, and they were left to meet with Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

According to the Al Jazeera report, "the latest diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should be seen in the broader context of recent strategic realignments in the Middle East and the Muslim world."

"For some time, Pakistan has been struggling to keep to its traditional policy of maintaining neutral relations with rival Muslim powers. While Islamabad is concerned about the deepening strategic and economic cooperation between its arch-rival India and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is equally frustrated by Pakistan's overtures towards Muslim-majority states it views as hostile, such as Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar," it said.

The Gulf countries are now visibly seen moving towards India and distancing from Pakistan. The tides are turning in India's favour. One such example is MBS's February 2019 visit of South Asia.

During his tour, the Saudi Crown Prince made the unprecedented move of visiting India directly after Pakistan. After signing agreements worth USD 20 billion with Pakistan, MBS said he expects Riyadh's investments in India "to exceed USD 100 billion in the coming two years".

Saudi Arabia is not the only one. After India's August 2019 move to revoke article 370, Pakistan called Arab states to raise their voices. However, its Gulf partners including Saudi Arabia failed to put a front against India. Riyadh even told India that it understands "India's approach and actions in Jammu and Kashmir".

Amid the strategic readjustment in the Middle East, political analysts say that relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is bound to get bumpy as it appears that the former will continue to move closer to New Delhi. Islamabad, on the other hand, will have to retain its partnerships with several countries in the Middle East and return to Saudi Arabia's sphere.


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First published: 2 September 2020, 9:41 IST