Executive summary

    • Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had a close relationship through the decades, during both Pakistan’s military and civilian regimes. Saudi Arabia has offered generous economic assistance to Pakistan, and the two countries have cooperated on defense matters.
    • Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has exercised enormous influence on Pakistan behind the scenes through its funding of Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandi madrassas (religious seminaries), which teach a more puritanical version of Islam than had traditionally been practiced in Pakistan. While the funding is not directly traceable, scholars and analysts report that much of this funding to madrassas comes from private sources in Saudi Arabia. Central to this is the flow of Saudi money to madrassas that trained the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, but the funding both predated and outlasted the Afghan jihad.
    • The Saudi funding of Pakistan’s madrassas derives from Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran ambitions and its bid to control the version of Islam, and specifically Sunni Islam, taught and practiced in Pakistan.
    • Two historic events in 1979—the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—increased Saudi influence in Pakistan thereafter. The Iranian revolution bolstered Saudi incentives to control Sunnism in Pakistan, and the Soviet-Afghan war gave the Saudis a mechanism to do so, through the funding of madrassas.
    • While the Saudi-Pakistan relationship is certainly durable, it has not been unconditional. In a surprising move, in April 2015, soon after receiving a $1.5 billion Saudi loan, Pakistan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to stay neutral in the Saudi intervention in Yemen against the Houthis. Iran was central to Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention, as Riyadh sees the Houthis as being supported by Tehran. Pakistan’s response to the intervention, then, is a clear reflection of how it delicately balances its relationship with Saudi Arabia and with Iran, while affirming its friendship with and support for Riyadh.
    • In recent months, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan have formed an opportunistic friendship, forced in some ways by Pakistan’s most recent debt crisis and Khan’s desire to stay away from Western aid, as well as by MBS’ troubles with the West after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The relationship grew closer with the crown prince’s February 2019 visit to Pakistan, during which he signed $20 billion in memorandums of understanding, and was given a no-expenses spared, red-carpet welcome by both Imran Khan and the chief of army staff.
    • The bottom line: Saudi Arabia has succeeded in changing the character of Pakistan’s religiosity in a bid to expand its influence in the Muslim world, and in its mission to counter Iran. Yet Saudi influence has its limits—Pakistan is skillful at balancing its relationships between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and while its relationship with the latter is on balance the stronger one, it still manages to “wriggle free” of having to overtly pick sides in the Iran-Saudi dispute.