The visit of Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman to the USA might well be an attempt at fence-building with Saudi Arabia’s old ally, but there are two parallel developments, one of which involves Pakistan indirectly, the other directly, which deserve to be linked with this.
The trip to the USA is important because of three significant dimensions. The first is that Prince Muhammad’s visit is a homecoming for him in that he studied in the USA. It also provides US President Donald Trump a first-hand look at the prospective future king of Saudi Arabia. This is not just important because of the Deputy Crown Prince’s potential, but because he is in effect in charge of the Kingdom’s current policies. Most prominently, he is Chairman of the Saudi Council for Economic and Development Affairs, though his position as Defence Minister gives him real clout. Though his cousin Muhammed bin Nayef is the Crown Prince, as the Head both of the Royal Court and the Crown Prince’s Court, he is actually calling the shots in Saudi Arabia. Third is that the Trump Administration is virulently pro-Israel, which means it is anti-Iran.
This is unfortunate for the present Iranian government, because it had come to office on the promise of improving relations with the USA and the rest of the world. There was a lot of distance to cover before the US-Iran relationship returned to its zenith under the Shah, but Iran was returning itself to the position of the alternative power in the Gulf region to Saudi Arabia on which the USA could rely. It was also essential that Iran join Saudi Arabia in ensuring the stability of oil prices, as well as keeping them low. However, revolutionary Iran had overtaken Saudi Arabia in its opposition to Israel, and its backing for the Lebanese militia Hizbollah was symbolic of its stance.
At the same time, its anti- Israel stance also seemed to see a rise in support both for the Alawi Assad regime in Syria, as well as the Houthi rebels in Yemen. While the Alawis and the Houthis are not Isna Ashari like Iran, they are both Shia. Iran thus found itself in the role of the main Shia champion. Saudi Arabia presented itself as the representative of Sunnis, even though it is Muwahid, and does not follow any of the four schools of thought that make up the Sunni continuum. One powerful advantage for the Saudis has been their possession of the Holy Mosques of Makkah and Madinah, which puts them in the unique position of controlling the Hajj. This is shown by the fact that last year’s Hajj saw Saudi Arabia forbid entry to Iranian pilgrims, something it has allowed this year, presumably after getting suitable guarantees and reassurances.
However, at the same time as Prince Muhammad’s visit to the USA, his father King Salman engaged in diplomacy of his own. He engaged on a month-long visit abroad, which included Muslim states like Malaysia and Indonesia, but climaxed in China. Not only did he visit a country the Trump Administration is wary of, but he also made a number of arms deals with it. This is one area which not only involves Pakistan, but especially its military. It should be noted that King Salman had previously hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but his visit to China would have set off alarm bells in New Delhi. China has two major motives for the meeting. First, Chinese industry depends on Saudi oil. Second, China would like Saudi Arabia to use its influence on the Uighur separatists pressing for the secession of Chinese Turkrestan (Xinjiang).
Pakistan’s military would favour this development for several reasons. First, it would cut at growing Indo-Saudi ties. Second, it would introduce a new dimension to the ties, one involving Pakistani co-production with China of the JF17 fighter (which Saudi Arabia is interested in). It would also thus show its utility to China.
Another dimension worth noticing is that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are accounted friends of the USA, with both officially having the status of major non-NATO allies, but both being subject to suspicions in Washington. Saudi Arabia is under suspicion because 9/11 was perpetrated by Saudi nationals among others, and because of the anti- Muslim animus of both Jews and Indians. Apart from that animus, Pakistan also has to labour under the perception that it is a hotbed of terrorism. Pakistan has long been accounted a friend of China, and now it seems Saudi Arabia is joining the club.
The relationship is not purely economic, though Pakistan is an integral part, through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, of China’s New Silk Road Project. It has a military dimension. Pakistan has a land dispute with India in the same area as China does, giving them both a reason to cooperate. Saudi Arabia does not have any land boundaries with India. However, India does fall in the direct sea-path to Saudi Arabia’s best customer. It should also be noted that while Saudi Arabia has an interest in the peace and stability of that path, one of its areas, the South China Sea, is being converted into a battleground by the USA, which is on the warpath against China, especially under the Trump Administration.
Thus Pakistan’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia is likelier to win approval from the USA rather than with China. Pakistan has the same two reasons to cooperate with Saudi Arabia as the rest of the Muslim world: it has oil money (which means that it employs a lot of Pakistanis), and it contains the two holy cities, Makkah and Madinah. The relationship has come under strain, with Pakistan (through its Parliament, no less) first refusing to send troops to Saudi Arabia for the Yemen adventure, and then with Saudi Arabia (short of money following the collapse in international oil prices) terminating contracts and thus rendering large numbers of Pakistani expatriates unemployed.
The Yemen venture is anathema to Pakistan because it violates the important principle of not getting involved in intra-Arab disputes. Also, Pakistan, itself undergoing unprecedented sectarian tension, would not like to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially in a sectarian conflict. However, the military seems to have overcome its initial hesitation, and is apparently now seeking ways of bypassing the prohibition, so that it can intervene in Saudi Arabia’s behalf. It should be noted that the war with Yemen is a personal project of the Deputy Crown Prince, who is also Defence Minister, and thus those favouring support for Saudi Arabia are also revealing a belief that Muhammad ibn Salman will one day be King. By favouring this option, the military has presumably found a way to overcome or accommodate the Saudi wish to screen the forces sent to it on sectarian lines. This is something that so far it has resisted, and has ensured that those belonging to minority sects have not faced discrimination on that basis.
It should finally be noted that the Saudi war in Yemen is closely connected with the Syrian civil war. The growing role of the USSR in defending the Assad regime means Iran is increasingly on the winning side. Saudi need to find relevance in it can be traced to a desire to fulfill US goals, but Saudi Arabia probably sees it as part of its war with Iran, of which the Yemen conflict is one theatre. It is worth noting how Pakistan is to be involved in Yemen through direct induction of troops, and in Syria through its participation in the coalition Saudi Arabia is formed for that purpose.