Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s Evolving Alliance

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s Evolving Alliance

The two Muslim powers seek a "reset"—but events in the region may make that impossible.


Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are bonded by a special relationship. The Saudis have used their wealth to invest in advanced weaponry, yet for decades Pakistan’s manpower and military expertise has played a pivotal role in the kingdom’s security landscape. As underscored by General Sharif’s meeting with the Saudi king in Riyadh earlier this month, which took place upon the conclusion of joint military drills, Riyadh and Islamabad continue to go to great lengths to remain engaged in each other’s security.

The alliance’s “reset” demonstrated that the Yemeni crisis is not the only issue which defines Saudi-Pakistani relations, and different strategies for reacting to the conflict did not end the “special relationship.” Nonetheless, Pakistan’s reasons for refusing to join Operation Decisive Storm are indicative of new geopolitical realities and new priorities for Pakistan’s leadership which have perhaps compromised the two nations’ previously held high level of trust. Moving forward, it is likely that the Gulf Arab monarchies—not only Saudi Arabia, but also the UAE—will raise further questions about Islamabad’s commitment to GCC security in light of the Yemen disagreement. In fact, as ties between Pakistan and the UAE suffered from the fallout over Yemen last April, many analysts maintained that General Sharif’s recent visit to Riyadh was in part aimed at reaching out to the Emirati leaders via Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s powerhouse.

As Middle Eastern conflicts raise tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan will find it increasingly challenging to navigate through the turmoil while maintaining a meaningful balance in its relationships with Riyadh and Tehran. At the same time, Pakistan’s own sectarian dynamics and wide resentment of Saudi Arabia on the part of large segments of Pakistan’s population (who attribute their country’s crises with Islamist extremism to the kingdom’s influence over the span of several decades) lead many in Pakistan to see wisdom in a pivot from Saudi Arabia to the Far East. Of course, looming in the background is Riyadh’s warming relationship with Delhi, a negative geopolitical development from Islamabad’s perspective that could influence the future of Saudi-Pakistani relations.

Pakistan is therefore likely to continue exploring opportunities to deepen relations with non-Arab countries such as China and Iran while Indian-Saudi ties also grow. By the same token, Riyadh will want to avoid alienating Islamabad, as the Saudis face a host of growing domestic and regional security challenges in which Pakistan’s manpower and diplomatic influence could well suit Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will remain close allies, but despite the “reset” earlier this month, the evolving Saudi-Pakistani alliance will likely face unforeseen complications in the future.

Giorgio Cafiero is the co-founder of Gulf State Analytics. Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Defense.gov