Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are resetting their relationship, which was dealt a major setback earlier this year when Islamabad refused to join the Saudi war in Yemen.
Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, visited Riyadh last week and held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman. A joint Saudi-Pakistani military exercise was also concluded. The Saudi media hailed the visit as an end to the “somewhat cool” period that followed the unanimous vote in the Pakistani parliament last April against sending any troops to join the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
The vote was followed by a wave of editorials in the Pakistani press harshly critical of the Kingdom. This criticism was highly unusual given the long history of close relations between the two states. Pakistan deployed thousands of soldiers in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s to deter any aggression by Iran against the Kingdom, for example, and Saudi Arabian money has helped bankroll Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. There are also 1.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia.
The chief of army staff’s visit will help repair the rift over Yemen, but doubts about Pakistan’s reliability will persist in the Gulf. Promises to come to the defense of the Kingdom and especially the two holy cities are taken with some question marks by the Gulf’s royal families, especially in Abu Dhabi.
For their part, senior Pakistanis have doubts about the stability of the succession process in Saudi Arabia. They are monitoring carefully the king’s son, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is also deputy crown prince as well as defense minister, and who is very ambitious. The king has already deposed one crown prince this year, his brother Prince Muqrin, with no explanation. Many Pakistanis are also unhappy with the Saudi response to the tragic stampede at the Hajj this year, in which dozens of Pakistanis were killed.
Given its neutral stand in the Yemen conflict, Pakistan could play a critical role in any peace agreement there by providing the core of a peace keeping force to oversee a cease-fire. Pakistan has a long history of providing excellent forces to United Nations peacekeeping missions. It is also experienced in managing Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions, which will be crucial to any peace process in Yemen. General Sharif will be in Washington later this month and should be quietly encouraged to lean forward to assist ending the war that Islamabad wisely stayed out of.
Those who most need the protections of international human rights law — dissidents, journalists, civil society actors — these vulnerable people are used to operating in the knowledge that big governments out there in the world care. They don’t have that now.