Saudi Arabia’s New Strategic Game in South Asia

Saudi Arabia’s New Strategic Game in South Asia

"Riyadh’s South Asia play is a high-stakes gambit with direct consequences for Iranian nuclear developments, the war in Syria, Pakistan’s stability and Indo-Pakistani peace."

Nevertheless, the Saudis have clearly mounted an unprecedented effort to minimize India’s dependence on Iran and the gambit has worked in important, if circumscribed, ways.

Reinforced Ties with Pakistan

In April 2014, 130,000 troops took part in Saudi Arabia’s largest-ever military exercises. Dubbed “Abdullah’s Shield,” the show of strength included an impressive parade for visiting dignitaries in honor of King Abdullah’s ninth anniversary on the throne. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, sat next to Prince Mutaib, the king’s son and National Guard minister, as a public demonstration of their important bilateral ties.

The parade was the latest in a series of recent events that suggest a rekindling of intimate relations between Riyadh and Islamabad, starting in mid-2013. The Saudi crown prince and foreign minister have each visited Pakistan, and General Sharif’s attendance at the military parade in April was his second high-profile trip to the kingdom since ascending to Pakistan’s top army job only six months earlier. Even more striking, however, was Islamabad’s March 2014 announcement that an unnamed friend—undoubtedly Saudi Arabia—had given Pakistan a “gift” of $1.5 billion, aimed at bolstering Pakistan’s currency. Well-placed Pakistani sources have since suggested that the total aid package could actually end up being twice or three times that amount.

Government officials in Islamabad contend that the recent Saudi embrace is nothing new. Saudi Arabia has had a long history of close ties with Pakistan: Islamabad started sending military trainers to the Kingdom in the 1960s, and during the 1970s and 1980s stationed thousands of troops—possibly as many as 20,000—there to bolster internal and external defenses. In return, the Saudis delivered to Pakistan nearly $1 billion in aid per year throughout most of the 1980s.

Also in the 1980s, the Saudis worked hand-in-hand with the United States to funnel billions of dollars to the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedeen, all by way of Pakistan’s ISI. But the Saudi-Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan did not end when the United States pulled away at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the two continued to collaborate in their support to friendly factions—including the Taliban—during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. Nor did Riyadh withdraw its support when Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons in 1998. To the contrary, the Saudis reportedly provided Islamabad with a desperately needed infusion of free energy, to the tune of 50,000 barrels of oil per day, to offset the pain of international sanctions.

For decades, the Saudis have played an influential political role in Islamabad. Riyadh’s willingness to host exiled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif throughout most of General Pervez Musharraf’s regime was a tangible manifestation of that influence, as was Sharif’s well-financed return to Pakistan during the 2007-8 national parliamentary campaign. More than that, rumors are rife that many of Pakistan’s elite leaders—from across the political spectrum—quietly receive generous gifts from royal Saudi benefactors.

Saudi largesse and influence thus have a pronounced history in Pakistan, but the first five years of civilian rule after Musharraf’s departure in 2008 never saw the senior Saudi visits or generous aid packages of 2013 and 2014. The cooling of Pak-Saudi relations between 2008 and 2013 was primarily a consequence of Riyadh’s distrust of then-President Asif Ali Zardari. That distrust was rooted in several factors, including the Saudi belief that Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and inheritor of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that was founded in 1967 by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is less of a loyal friend than Pakistan’s military leaders or the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif (no relation to the current army chief).

This point was reinforced when Zardari’s PPP lost the May 2013 elections to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party, and Riyadh and Islamabad quickly got back to business-as-usual. From a Saudi perspective, Sharif’s loyalties—both sectarian and geopolitical—are unimpeachable. Now that they have their man in Islamabad, the Saudis expect that Pakistan will not tilt toward Tehran in any matter of significant concern.

The question is exactly what the Saudis expect to get from Pakistan for their generous financial assistance and friendly diplomacy. Initially thought to be at the top of a speculative quid pro quo list was the idea that the Saudis sought to spring former president Musharraf from house arrest (imposed while he stands trial for actions he took as Pakistan’s president) into a comfortable exile of the sort Nawaz Sharif enjoyed. Although this outcome would still be a plausible way for Musharraf’s current political drama to end, so far he continues to languish in Pakistan despite new rumors cropping up each time a senior Saudi official lands in Islamabad.

Other Pakistani analysts speculate that Riyadh’s friendly coercion was aimed at blocking plans for a gas pipeline from Iran, originally called the IPI for its ambition of running from Iran’s South Pars field through Pakistan to India. Saudi Arabia would clearly like to keep Iran from poking any holes in international sanctions, but it is less certain that Riyadh needed to pay Pakistan in order to kill the IPI. The pipeline deal was already plagued by delays, and major financial and security obstacles remain in the way of a line that would run through Baluchistan, some of the region’s most insecure and violent real estate.

Pipeline or no, Pakistan may be on track to deliver on two far more sensitive issues: Syria and nuclear weapons. Regarding Syria, despite subsequent claims to the contrary, Pakistan appeared to alter its policy stance after the February 2014 visit to Islamabad by the Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In a joint communiqué, Pakistan expressed support for the Saudi goals of forming a Syrian “transitional governing body” and removing all foreign (read: Iranian) military forces.

In addition, Pakistani military officers appear to be involved in the training of Syrian groups fighting the Assad regime, and the Saudis may have purchased a range of Pakistani-manufactured small arms, possibly even antiaircraft and antitank missiles, for use by anti-Assad insurgent groups. When asked, Pakistani officials have denied that their troops are training Syrian rebels and claim that the use of any weapons sold to Saudi Arabia would be contractually restricted to the Saudis themselves. But these deflections suggest obvious loopholes; retired Pakistani officers are not “serving troops,” and if the Saudis break end-use restrictions on Pakistan-made weapons, there is no reason to expect Islamabad would ever hold them accountable.

On the nuclear front, the picture is even more opaque. Pakistani officials uniformly insist that they learned their lesson from the experience of Dr. A.Q. Khan’s infamous international proliferation network that being involved in the transfer of nuclear materials and know-how is a dangerous and costly game—one they should never again play. The Saudis are also careful to explain that they have no claim on the Pakistani nuclear program, despite decades of rumors to the contrary, that like any self-respecting state, Pakistan guards its arsenal jealously, and that the only Saudi plan for nuclear development is to improve the nation’s indigenous technological capabilities.

These claims are difficult to accept at face value for two main reasons. First, both Riyadh and Islamabad have every incentive to hide the extent of their nuclear cooperation. If a nuclear transfer were exposed, the two states would not only feel the wrath of the international community for breaking rules enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but they would also give Iran new reasons to accelerate its own nuclear-weapon development—precisely the outcome that Riyadh would prefer to avoid.

Second, if Iran does actually cross the nuclear-weapons threshold, Riyadh has signaled that it would stop at nothing to match Tehran’s feat—and fast. At present, the only realistic, cost-effective, quick way for Riyadh to make good on that threat is through a Pakistani nuclear transfer. No other nuclear state has as intimate a security relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh currently lacks the wherewithal to build an arsenal of its own.

In that hypothetical scenario, time would be of the essence. If the Pakistanis were to transfer warheads to the Saudis immediately after Iran goes nuclear, the international backlash would probably be muted, with primary blame assigned to Iran for starting the proliferation chain reaction. If, however, the Saudis take months or years to ready their own nuclear capability or negotiate a transfer from Pakistan, both Riyadh and Islamabad would almost certainly run up against a concerted international effort to close the nuclear door after Iran’s breakout. There are other good reasons for Riyadh to want to be able to move quickly. Armed with an immediate and dramatic counter to Iran’s new nuclear status, Riyadh would steal Tehran’s thunder, deny Iran a coercive advantage, and enter a marginally more stable world of nuclear deterrence from day one.

Just how Pakistan would transfer a nuclear capability to Saudi Arabia is a matter of some speculation. A dual-key arrangement with a contingent of Pakistani nuclear forces based in Saudi Arabia would hold some advantages, including that it might not technically violate the NPT (in the same way as U.S. nuclear forces have historically been based within nonnuclear allied territories). Such a deal would require a significant Pakistani military footprint inside Saudi Arabia, presumably a development that might be spotted by U.S. and other intelligence services.