Decoding the Riyadh-Islamabad quid pro quo

Bhopinder Singh

Pakistan is the sixth-largest military in the world and the only “nuclear power” with the most powerful military among Muslim-majority nations — giving Islamabad a certain leverageable “asset”. At one time in the 1980s, Pakistan had military missions in 22 countries and had become the largest military troop-deployer among Third World countries. Even under the UN’s “blue berets”, it remains one of the longest serving and largest contributors to the UN’s peacekeeping missions. However, it is the strategic politico-religious alignment of Pakistan with the West Asian nations that has seen Islamabad provide invaluable military support to the Gulf regimes in the form of combat troops or under the guise of trainers and “advisers” to countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, etc. The Pakistani military contingent in these countries has proved its professional mettle in various combat actions like during the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979, the heroics of Air Commodore Sattar Alvi in shooting down an Israeli fighter plane in Syria and in the role of then-brigadier Zia-ul Haq (later Chief of Army Staff and President of Pakistan) in the operation “Black September” in Jordan — establishing a perception of reliability, convenience and affordability of the Pakistani military as a protective cover for these cash-rich regimes.
Saudi Arabia in particular has had a special relationship with Pakistan, with Islamabad getting described as “Saudi Arabia’s closest Muslim ally”. This had led to nearly 20,000 Pakistani troops protecting the wary and nervous House of Saud before the start of the first Gulf War. The ostensible mandate of joint military exercises, training, advisory roles and information-sharing barely concealed the obvious fact that while the Saudi armed forces were equipped with the latest technology, weaponry and equipment — they lacked the battle hardiness and rigour that a more bloodied, deployed and active force like the Pakistani military offered. At one time it was even murmured that the Saudis had funded the first “Islamic bomb” by Pakistan. Maj. Gen. Feroz Hassan Khan, in his book Eating the Grass, had acknowledged that, “Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the nuclear programme to continue.” Whether the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is “on-call” for the Saudis is a matter of speculation, even though both regimes vehemently deny it. However, Pakistan has historically provided a military umbrella to the Saudis in exchange for generous financial and material aid. The recent performance of Saudi troops against the ragtag Houthi militia in Yemen or against the Iran-propped forces in the Syrian swathes, leaves a lot to be desired, and therefore retains the relevance of the professional Pakistani military. Importantly, the recently-cobbled alliance of 41 nations under the Saudi aegis of the “Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition”, has also been entrusted to the former Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif. The Saudi influence and leverage over the Pakistani government was visible in the safe exit provided to the Nawaz Sharif family following Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999.
Today, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are cornered and isolated for mismanagement of their affairs — Riyadh is paying the price for Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s misadventures and the Jamal Khashoggi-like recklessness, while Islamabad is yet again facing the very real threats of an embarrassing sovereign default on its bloated debt-servicing requirements. In both countries, the traditional ally, the United States, has been forced into taking a tough stance of forestalling either a diplomatic bail-out in the case of Saudi Arabia or a financial bailout in the case of Pakistan, which is virtually on the doors of an economic meltdown. While there are considerable strategic interests both ways, a potential freeze or non-cooperation from the US can make both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan extremely vulnerable, in their own ways. US troops are deployed in various places like the Eskan Air Base, King Abdul Aziz Air Base, King Fahd Air Base, Khamis Mushayt, Riyadh Air base, etc, ensuring the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia and the survival of the Saud regime, which was echoed by Donald Trump’s rant against the Saudi King that he “might not be there for two weeks” without US military support! This nightmarish spectre for both Riyadh and Islamabad could lead to the further convergence of the Saudi-Pak framework of bartering military support for financial aid, to tide over their respective crises. Till earlier this year, there were approximately 1,650 Pakistani troops on Saudi soil, and following a trip by the Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa, speculation was rife about the additional deployment of a full-fledged Pakistani brigade on the sensitive Saudi-Yemen border. Given its own sectarian issues, Pakistan had resisted earlier pressures from the Saudis to intervene militarily in Yemen’s sectarian civil war. Therefore, this brigade could possibly be on a defensive position only.
Now, Imran Khan’s desperate pitch to raise money from the Saudis had led him to attend the “Future Investment Initiative Conference”, even when many others preferred avoiding the conference, given the infamous unravelling of the Saudi handiwork in the Khashoggi case. While Mr Khan did manage a sizeable $6 billion package ($3 billion for the immediate “balance-of-payments” crisis and $3 billion for a one-year deferment in oil bills), the reciprocal terms of the package on behalf of the Pakistanis, remains mired in secrecy. The current dispensation in Saudi Arabia, effectively led by Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is known for its hard stance on security, decisiveness (even if misplaced) and on extreme paranoia, on matters concerned with his formal ascension to the throne — there is only one thing that the Pakistanis can offer the Saudis in these desperate times — enhanced military cover and security commitments! Additional Pakistani presence on account of the supposed “training and advice mission” could give away the latest quid pro quo, as neither are the Saudis in the mood to bluff and pontificate on security nor are they wont to throw away “good money behind bad commercial deals” in the given scenario. Security-for-cash is the only plausible and logical quid pro quo.