Pakistan is seeking Saudi support in negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Pak-Gulf Cooperation Council which will provide markets to Pakistani goods in the Arab states but there is little progress on this. The recent grant of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status to Pakistan by the EU should now nudge Saudi Arabia towards a decision as Pakistan genuinely desires to re-orientate its economy from aid to trade.
As per media reports, Pakistan was also likely to seek Riyadh’s support to broker a peace agreement with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP has so far shown only halfhearted willingness to enter into negotiations with Pakistan, though the interior minister insists that some sort of behind-the-scenes contacts is taking place.
Global diplomacy, these days, is heavily interdependent and there is no harm, per se, in asking assistance from friends and allies, but it is also quite obvious that, like in most other fields, we have had a huge fall from the days of Sir Chaudhary Zafarullah Khan, when as head of Pakistan’s delegation, he articulately advocated the position of the Muslim world on the Palestine issue and, as the country’s representative in the UNSC, he advocated liberation of not only Kashmir but Libya, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Indonesia. Some capacity building in our foreign office is therefore called for to be able to launch effective diplomacy rather than over-dependence on others for support.
In 2009, Hillary Clinton called Saudi Arabia ‘ a financial base’ for funding terrorism. It has, however, been lucky to largely remain unscathed from the fallout of 9/11 when 15 out of 19 hijackers were said to be from Saudi Arabia, unlike Pakistan which continues to suffer even though it had nothing to do with that tragedy whatsoever.
Whether or not Saudi Arabia will oblige Pakistan on this count is hard to say since it is vying for a favourable balance of power in the region between the Sunnis and the Shiites and is extensively engaged with Iran in that cause on Pakistani soil. No gainsaying. Pakistan needs to take up this issue with Iran also to drastically shrink, if not eliminate altogether, the battle space occupied by these two friendly countries in pursuit of their objectives.
During his visit, Saud Al-Faisal stated that it is against his country’s foreign policy to interfere in other countries’ affairs but there have been widespread reports of infiltration by Al-Qaeda elements in the Syrian opposition, allegedly sponsored by Saudi Arabia. It is true that Saudi Arabia has fought Al-Qaeda domestically, but the world has noticed that it has seldom, if ever, denounced the havoc wreaked by this terror organization beyond its own borders.
If the Saudis adopt a similar position in Afghanistan in the post-2014 scenario, it could suck Pakistan further into a whirlpool of unpredictable events which is undesirable. It is also in Saudi Arabia’s interest to distance itself from the ideology of Al-Qaeda, since in future, there is likely to be even less global tolerance for its aggressive support for a stern version of Islam if the political changes now underway in the region get permanent traction and dependence of the U.S. and the west on fossil fuel drops, with advances in technology which is envisaged in a decade from now.
Interestingly, the current rulers in Pakistan, who find it difficult to engage the Taliban at home, have offered to bridge the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia – a much tougher nut to crack. Besides this, regional politics is evolving at a much faster pace than Pakistan’s capacity to handle it. Iran’s possible emergence as an important regional player is directly in proportion to Saudi Arabia’s declining significance in the ‘redirection’ of U.S.’ regional policies as evident from its actions in Egypt and Syria, which are at variance with Saudi’s interests. Saudi Arabia has raised the stakes by extending U.S. $ 3 billion to Lebanon and courting France for a smooth sale of military hardware aimed at weakening Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran.
The failure of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive diplomacy to wean Russia away from supporting Syria has further added to its worries. The recent terrorist attack in Volgograd, just ahead of the Sochi Winter Games, has caused concern in Moscow where President Putin is determined to showcase this event as a sign of a re-emerging Russia. Whether or not there is a nexus between North Caucus and Al-Qaeida elements in the Syrian opposition in this incident, the suspicion is poisoning Saudi-Russian relations.
Defense collaboration was another subject discussed during the Saudi Foreign Minister’s visit whose contours remain undefined. It is quite obvious that if Iran breaks out with a nuclear bomb, it will be politically unacceptable for the kingdom not to have one. The Guardian newspaper has already speculated that in such an eventuality, Saudi Arabia will endeavour to acquire one from China or Pakistan or a pledge from Pakistan for nuclear cover.
Saudi Arabia is a brotherly country and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif enjoys close relations with the Saudi rulers. But whatever else he may do to strengthen mutual relations, he would do well to guard against two pitfalls: discourage any further drift towards extremist religious ideology and steer clear of any nuclear arrangements with Saudi Arabia as that would not only cause Pakistan further problems globally but also embarrass China which, in the face of all odds, has taken some bold steps to address the country’s energy needs through new nuclear reactors. The writer is a retired vice admiral and former vice chief of naval staff of the Pakistan Navy.