The Great Game – The race to woo Saudi Arabia

Pakistan's old relationship with Saudi Arabia has deteriorated under Imran Khan as India draws closer to the Gulf kingdom

Indian Army Chief General M M Naravane is currently on a four-day visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although specifics about the agenda of the visit has not been revealed, apart from the fact that it will help improve relations between India and the Islamic world, the significance of the visit can be understood from the fact that this is the first-ever visit of an Indian Army chief to Saudi Arabia. The visit marks one more major trip from New Delhi to the Gulf region highlighting the increasing strategic cooperation between the two sides across the Arabian Sea.

In a break from the past where the Gulf countries always used to balance their relations with Pakistan and India, they are now seen moving towards New Delhi and distancing from Islamabad. What could that mean for Pakistan?

Amid an increasingly polarised Muslim world, Pakistan’s strategy to maintain diplomatic ties with countries in the Middle East is no longer working. But why?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has made no secret of his government’s reliance on Saudi bailouts to stave off economic collapse. Pakistan is facing an unprecedented economic crisis. With unemployment spiralling, inflation said to be at an all-time high, millions of people are facing economic devastation.

In 2018 Khan travelled to an investment conference in Riyadh at a time when many leaders were distancing themselves from the kingdom over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi a few weeks earlier, returning with pledges of loans worth $6bn.

But Pakistan has become increasingly vulnerable and more subservient to the kingdom as a result.

Earlier this year, Qureshi had sought a special meeting of OIC foreign ministers to discuss the Kashmir issue, failing which he had threatened that Pakistan would itself convene a meeting of the Islamic countries outside the OIC framework. The Saudi reaction was forthright as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) recalled a loan of $3 billion given earlier to Pakistan, stopped delivery of oil on deferred loan and disallowed flights from Pakistan (while allowing them from 25 other nations).

After getting a solid snub from Saudi Arabia when Pakistan tried to hijack the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) forum, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had to cut a sorry figure. Later Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s visit to Saudi Arabia in August, to ease the diplomatic strain between the countries, ended with him being denied a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

How did the traditional friendship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia go so wrong suddenly? The answer lies in Pakistan’s failure to read the new dynamics reshaping Middle East politics – with uglier contestation between Iran, Turkey and Malaysia on one side and Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other.

Pakistan views the emerging politics in the Middle East mainly through the prism of Kashmir. It tends to lean more on the side of Iran, Turkey and Malaysia which have openly supported her against Saudi Arabia, UAE and others which are taking a more balanced stand, appreciating India’s sensitivities. India will not only be the biggest buyer of Saudi crude in future (given China’s slowing economy and declining population) but can help Saudi Arabia, UAE and others greatly (along with Israel and the US) in achieving their vision of rapid economic development.

Today, India is central to the economic and geopolitical thinking of Asia and global economics and politics. This has reflected throughout the Covid-19 crisis, with New Delhi’s dispatch of rapid medical response teams to Kuwait and emergency nurses to UAE, and talks at the highest levels, first digitally and now in person, on issues such as health diplomacy.

The recent flurry of diplomacy between the regions, while being a continuation of trends of the past few years, is also centred on one major factor.

India is trying to push its case in countries such as UAE, which recently orchestrated a ban on 13 countries for reissuance of visas. This list includes Pakistan. The reasons for the ban were not aired overtly by Abu Dhabi; however, analysts believe that security reasons were the driving force behind this measure. In private, officials in the Gulf have often stated that workers from countries such as India are increasingly preferred due to their high level of qualifications and the low threat of extremism and ideological indoctrination both from their native society and how they integrate into the Gulf in general. Meanwhile, the ongoing problems between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also offer New Delhi more diplomatic room.


History suggests that countries which have adopted moderate and progressive outlook have made faster progress than those which have taken an authoritarian and insular turn. It is unfortunate that Pakistan continues to stagnate in the latter category. India will have to carefully assess the strategic impact of a hostile Pakistan relying increasingly on an intransigent China in creating new infrastructure linkages through the illegally occupied Gilgit-Baltistan region with the Central Asian and Gulf states in future. The Gulf countries are now visibly seen moving towards India and distancing from Pakistan. The tides are turning in India’s favour.

12 Dec 20/ Sunday                                                                                      Written By:  Saima Ibrahim