Saudi Arabia: Nervously Watching Pakistan

No country in the world, except maybe India, is more concerned with the outcome of the political crisis that is gripping Pakistan than Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom has a longstanding and intimate relationship with Pakistan. They faced common enemies in the past successfully and face a common enemy today in al Qaeda. They have had a deep strategic military relationship for decades and today 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 understanding the future of both countries, the nuclear balance in both the Near East and South Asia, and the crisis in Pakistan today.

Pakistan has received more aid from Saudi Arabia than any country outside the Arab world since the 1960s. 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 per day of free oil to help the Pakistanis cope with the economic sanctions that might be triggered by a counter test. The Saudi oil commitment was a key to then Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif’s decision to proceed with testing. It cushioned the subsequent U.S. and EU sanctions on Pakistan considerably. Official aid is matched by large investments from Saudi princes and from religious institutions. Much of the Pakistani madrassa educational system, for instance, is Saudi funded by private donors.

In turn, Pakistan has provided military aid and expertise to the kingdom for decades. It began with help to the Royal Saudi Air Force to build and pilot its first jet fighters in the 1960s. Pakistani Air Force pilots flew RSAF Lightnings that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border in 1969. In the 1970s and 1980s up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the kingdom, some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border. The close ties continue between the militaries today.

Economic and military ties are matched by close intelligence and security relations. During the 1980s, the Saudis financed more than half of the jihad to support the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan and worked more closely than anyone else with the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, to support the war effort. Those ties continued in the 1990s when the Saudis and Pakistanis assisted the Taliban for a time. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Sultan has said “It’s probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries.”

Today the intelligence focus is on al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, the child of the earlier Saudi-Pakistani joint project in Afghanistan, has declared war on both countries and has been responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in both countries. He has called for the overthrow of both King Abdullah and President Musharraf. From his lair along the Afghan-Pakistani border he issues calls for their death and trains Saudi and Pakistani jihadists to kill them. The Saudis foiled a major plot by al Qaeda in December 2007 to attack the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, and Interior Minister Prince Nayif said the kingdom had countered over 180 al Qaeda terrorist operations since 2003. In Pakistan there were 56 suicide bombings last year, 36 targeting the army (two at ISI headquarters). Most had an al Qaeda connection, including the two attacks on Benazir Bhutto. By one count Musharraf has been the target nine times so far.

The two Sunni states also share a concern about Shia Iran. Both seek to keep ties with Tehran as normal as possible but have a deep fear that Iran might encourage unrest in their Shia minorities. Both have had serious frictions with Iran in the past and work together to minimize Iranian influence in the region. A nuclear Iran worries its neighbors to the south and to the east.

Shortly after Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan visited Pakistan and toured its nuclear and missile facilities outside Islamabad. Pakistan’s famous A.Q. Khan provided some of the color commentary for these unprecedented tours. At the time, U.S. officials expressed concern that the Pakistanis might be providing a nuclear weapon to the Saudis. Sultan has been Defense Minister since 1962 and today is also Crown Prince. Saudi connections with Pakistan’s nuclear program go back almost as far. Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto sought financial help for the program from Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s, according to some accounts. Then King Faisal of Saudi Arabia provided some money in return for a promise that Pakistan’s nuclear program would provide a security umbrella for the kingdom. Bhutto repaid the favor by renaming a city in the King’s honor, Faisalabad.

After Sharif’s ouster in a coup by Musharraf in 1999, he went into exile in the kingdom, an agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration to forestall Nawaz’s execution. The nuclear relationship continued and matured under Musharraf. In October 2003, then Crown Prince Abdullah visited Pakistan for a state visit. Several experts reported after the trip that a secret agreement was concluded that would ensure Pakistan would provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear technology and a bomb if Saudi Arabia felt threatened by a third party nuclear program in the future. Both countries, of course, denied the stories.

Assuming an agreement exists, it is likely the two have practiced the deployment of Pakistani warheads to Saudi Arabia for use with Saudi delivery systems. It would also make sense for RSAF and Pakistani pilots to jointly train for their use. More frequent exercises would help assure Riyadh that it can count on Islamabad in a crisis and that any deal is for real. Saudi Arabia’s Chinese-made intermediate range missiles, now increasingly obsolete, are also widely assumed to be a possible delivery system for Pakistani warheads in a crisis. It was, of course, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who arranged their purchase.

When the current political crisis began in Pakistan last year, the Saudis assumed Musharraf would weather the storm. Like all the other Arab monarchies their sympathies are clearly with Musharraf and they made these known to the United States and other powers. After Nawaz sought to go home in the early fall, Saudi Arabia reluctantly agreed to take him back into exile at the General’s request.

But when the Bush administration persuaded Musharraf to allow Benazir Bhutto to return in October the Saudis found themselves in an unsustainable position. If Nawaz’s rival could go home, it was impossible for them to keep Nawaz in the kingdom against his will. The Saudis summoned Musharraf to the kingdom and Nawaz was allowed to end his exile. The Saudi intelligence chief Prince Miqrin abd al Aziz is said to have arranged the return.

The Saudis’ leverage to ensure a favorable outcome of the crisis is significant if limited. With oil prices hovering around $100 to a barrel, cheap subsidized Saudi oil is critical to the Pakistani economy and energy can be a major leverage point. Their close connections with the Pakistani army and intelligence services, their longstanding ties with the Sharif family and their connections with the Sunni religious establishment give them more clout than most outsiders, but they are also widely resented in the country for encouraging the fundamentalists in the 1980s and 1990s. Should Sharif emerge as the next kingmaker in Pakistan after the February 18 elections, the Saudis will probably do all they can to smooth his transition to power and encourage the army to work with him. Ironically, that could make Musharraf the next recipient of an exile in the kingdom.

Whoever emerges as the leader in Pakistan, Saudi leaders will seek to ensure their understanding about a nuclear deterrent remains in place. If that requires more aid and assistance, it will be a small price to pay. For the kingdom, Pakistan will remain a unique partner.