When Crown Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia died this fall, the first foreign head of state to announce he would attend the funeral was President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan. Accompanying him was the chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the real power in the country.
It was no surprise that Zardari and Kayani would rush to pay their respects to the House of Saud. Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a longstanding and an intimate relationship. It is one of the most enduring alliances of modern times. They have had a deep strategic military relationship for decades and today, they may have an unacknowledged nuclear partnership to provide the Kingdom with a nuclear deterrent on short notice, if ever needed. Understanding the Saudi-Pakistani relationship is important to understand the future of both the countries, the nuclear balance in both the Near East and South Asia, and the crisis in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia today.
Pakistan has received more aid from Saudi Arabia than any country outside the Arab world since the Sixties. For example, in May 1998 when Pakistan was deciding whether to respond to India’s test of five nuclear weapons, the Saudis promised 50,000 barrels of free oil per day to help it cope with the economic sanctions that might be triggered by the Pakistani counter test. The Saudi oil commitment was a key to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ’s decision to proceed with testing. It considerably cushioned the subsequent US and EU sanctions on Pakistan. Official aid is matched by large investments from Saudi princes and from religious institutions. Much of the Pakistani madrassa educational system is Saudi-funded by private donors connected to the Kingdom’s powerful Wahhabi clerical establishment. The new Crown Prince, minister of interior, Prince Nayif, is closely tied to these Wahhabi networks.
[The economy is] an issue where [Rouhani] has a greater chance of avoiding real gridlock within the system itself. It’s not nearly as dangerous as taking on issues of political prisoners or trying to open up the political space to those who feel marginalized.