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Thursday Oct 25 2018

Saudi-Pakistan ties through the lens of CPEC

While our economic woes are not quite over, at least the $6 billion Saudi lifeline, in the form of cash assistance and oil on deferred payments, provides much needed relief to the new government. In some sense, our prime minister’s decision to attend the international ‘Davos in the Desert’ investment conference, despite it being boycotted by many other international leaders over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has paid off, literally.

This Saudi largess comes on the heels of Pakistan’s announcement that Saudi Arabia would not be made a collateral strategic partner in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, neither Pakistan nor China have dismissed prospects of Saudi collaboration. There could be many offshoots of CPEC where third countries can be involved.

In fact, as trade wars between the US and China keep escalating, China is even keener to move full-speed ahead with its ambitious $1 trillion One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, of which CPEC is a sub-component. The larger OBOR initiative has led China to make major investments in many troubled African, Middle Eastern and South Asian countries.

While Chinese ambitious to connect previously marginalised countries into the global economy is a risky bet, it does offer unique opportunities for collaboration between countries which have been locked in protracted conflicts. In the Middle East, for instance, China is trying to establish an “all round strategic partnership” with promises to simultaneously expand economic interaction with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Coinciding with this development, the Pakistani prime minister also reiterated his resolve to play a facilitative role in overcoming the longstanding Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

The nearly forty-year rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has led to a fierce struggle for dominance across much of the Middle East, and in many other Muslim countries around the world. Besides afflicting neighbouring countries like Yemen and Iraq, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry also plays out in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have been long caught up in the vortex of sectarian conflict.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have important stakes in getting a country like Pakistan on their side. Despite its economic problems, Pakistan is the second most populous Muslim country after Indonesia. It is the sole Muslim nuclear power, and it possesses the eighth largest army in the world.

Given its immense oil-resources and its alignment with broader geostrategic trends, Saudi Arabia has created strong inroads in Pakistan over the past several decades. Saudi financial generosity has been repaid by Pakistan’s support to Saudi Arabia in times of need, such as the Persian Gulf war. Saudis have subsequently provided Pakistan much needed financial reprieve in the form of deferred oil payments. Pakistan is also the recipient of billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia, and its other aligned Gulf states, in the form of remittances.

Conversely, Pakistan had a history of close ties with Iran till the Iranian revolution took place in 1979. Subsequently, it was India which managed to develop closer ties with Iran, especially in the context of the proxy war in Afghanistan, when both countries supported the Northern Alliance. Now, Iran is working with India on the Chabahar port, located 50 miles away from the deep-sea port of Gwadar, which has been revamped and leased by the Chinese under the CPEC project. Charbahar aims to provide an alternative maritime supply route for India and landlocked Afghanistan.

However, India decided to pull out of the India-Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project fearing US reprisals, and there is a possibility that Chabahar may also face the same fate. Iran, therefore, also does not want to forego the opportunities offered by the OBOR initiative.

Yet, despite Pakistan’s ambition to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia closer, and Chinese willingness to work with both these Middle Easter powers, the Iran-Saudi rivalry has by no means abated yet. If anything, Saudi Arabia had welcomed US President Donald J. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

Recently, the Iranian President has also just asserted that Saudi Arabia would not have murdered prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi without American protection. Tensions between the two countries continue to remain antagonistic and fuel instability within the larger region. Besides its own reluctance to work with Iran, Saudi Arabia will have to consider what repercussions its involvement with OBOR may have in terms of the Saudi alliance with the US.

Given the above challenges, Pakistan’s goal to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran will not be easy, despite possible opportunities that the OBOR may present.

Ali is a development anthropologist.


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