Eye on the Middle East | Saudi-Pakistan joint statement on Kashmir shows Riyadh’s balancing act - Hindustan Times

Eye on the Middle East | Saudi-Pakistan joint statement on Kashmir shows Riyadh’s balancing act

Apr 11, 2024 11:25 PM IST

The recent joint statement between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, calling for dialogue to resolve the Kashmir dispute, marks a subtle shift in Riyadh's stance.

On April 8, a Saudi Arabia-Pakistan joint statement caught media attention in India for its reference to the Kashmir dispute. Released during Pakistan premier Shehbaz Sharif’s official visit to the kingdom, the statement called for “dialogue between Pakistan and India to resolve outstanding issues…especially the Jammu and Kashmir dispute…” The language seemingly echoes India’s post-1972 position (after the Shimla Agreement) that the dispute shall be resolved through bilateral means, without international involvement.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Bahrain's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in his palace on the eve of 29th Ramadan, during the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, April 7, 2024. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY(via REUTERS) PREMIUM
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Bahrain's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in his palace on the eve of 29th Ramadan, during the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, April 7, 2024. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY(via REUTERS)

While it could be argued that the statement’s call for dialogue was standard and not uncommon, other indicators exist to show that Riyadh’s ties with New Delhi have only increased in recent years, even as the Saudi-Pakistan relationship has taken some hits (while retaining its historically positive character). The downstream effect of this has been a more subtle Saudi position on the Kashmir issue, which does not reflect unflinching support for Pakistan. How has this evolution come about?

The downturn in Pakistan

The Saudi-Pakistan relationship has historically been anchored in ideology due to the Islamic underpinnings of both states, consequent of determined lobbying by the nascent Pakistani state to rally support from Arab states. Consequently, Riyadh’s partnership with Pakistan yielded immense economic and diplomatic support, including support for Pakistan’s wars against India. Regional developments in the last quarter of the 21st century pushed both states even closer together — especially with a Shia theocracy taking hold in Iran, between Sunni majority Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on both its wings. The closeness between the two also led to significant Saudi support for the Pakistani nuclear programme, as well as Pakistan’s willingness to provide troops to Riyadh (such as in the 1991 Gulf War when it sent two brigades to protect Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia). The former even generated prolonged speculation about Saudi Arabia being under Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella, given that Pakistan is the only Islamic country with nuclear weapons (although both states deny such an understanding).

Across the last decade, however, the strains on the Saudi-Pakistan relationship have increased. While an initial thorn was Pakistan’s refusal to join Riyadh’s war in Yemen in 2015 (drawing Saudi ire), the characteristics of the relationship began to gradually change. Riyadh, under Mohammed bin Salman’s de-facto control since 2017, has been actively seeking economic diversity, ostensibly even sacrificing commitment to Wahhabi conservatism at the altar of economic integration. Across the last five years, the economic relationship has been remarkably imbalanced, with Pakistan relying on Arab aid to pull through its successive economic crises. With the global situation worsening, Saudi Arabia aided cash-strapped Pakistan with $8 and $2 billion in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Given Riyadh’s gradual extrication from the war in Yemen, its rapprochement with Iran, as well as its (pre-October 7) inclinations to even consider normalisation of ties with Israel for greater economic benefits, the power of ideological affinity to act as the pre-eminent driver for regional foreign policy, has reduced.

The upswing in India

In terms of critical mass (bolstered by historic closeness), the Saudi-Pakistan relationship remains steady (as evidenced in the joint statement’s commitment to continued cooperation). What has changed is the ability of this closeness to hinder the advancement of Riyadh’s ties with India, as also noted by Muddassir Quamar, associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. While this is both due to shifts in the Saudi-Pakistan relationship highlighted above, it is equally due to India’s rise in the regional and global arena (now on the path to becoming the world’s third-largest economy).

That New Delhi reciprocates Riyadh’s interest has been evident, especially in developments over the last year. India has emerged as Saudi Arabia’s third-largest trading partner, while the latter is India’s fourth-largest with bilateral trade valued at $52.76 billion in FY23. However, there is enough evidence of India’s interest in strategic ties with Gulf powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, even beyond economic relations. For instance, while Mohammed bin Salman was specially hosted in New Delhi for an official visit immediately after the G20 Summit, India and Saudi Arabia held their first bilateral military exercises in Rajasthan in February 2024. Note that India’s minister for minority affairs, Smriti Irani, visited the Saudi holy city of Medina in just the preceding month. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, has emerged as one of the strongest backers for New Delhi’s India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi having visited the UAE seven times — the highest to any foreign state — India’s interests in sustained mutually beneficent engagement with the Arab world, is readily evident.

How this has affected the Kashmir issue

Arab support for Pakistan’s Kashmir stance has largely become restricted to rhetorical expressions of support for Pakistan and condemnation of Indian policies in Kashmir, at summits of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (a 57-state body founded in 1969). While individual Arab states have evinced an evolution in their positions, the OIC has kept up its rhetorical criticism of Indian policies in Kashmir, on Pakistan’s behest, and has consistently drawn sharp criticism from India. While it condemned India’s watering down of Article 370 in 2019, it reiterated this in December 2023 after the Indian Supreme Court upheld the constitutional changes, and called for dispute resolution in line with UN Security Council resolutions (echoing Pakistan’s position which seeks greater international involvement). A constant refrain in OIC statements is also support for “self-determination” for the Kashmiri people. Here, the 2024 Saudi-Pakistan joint statement stands out — it neither mentions the 2019 changes nor does it refer to UNSC resolutions.

The OIC itself, has not undertaken action beyond rhetorical support for Pakistan, which is a founding member. A scathing editorial in Pakistani media outlet Dawn as far back as 2009 had criticised the organisation’s “40 years of failure” even on other policies for the Muslim world. The fact that the Pakistani foreign policy establishment has remained unsatisfied with the OIC’s rhetoric, was evident in early 2020 when the then Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, expressed his frustration with the OIC for not doing enough for Kashmir. This resulted in Saudi Arabia freezing a $3.2 billion oil credit facility and demanding partial repayment of a $3 billion loan, to signal its disapproval of Qureshi’s comments.

Essentially, Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the OIC remains strong (even providing a new headquarters for the organisation in Jeddah in December 2023). However, this commitment driven principally by ideology, is distinct from its bilateral commitments driven by economic and strategic interests. The only question that remains is: why did Pakistan agree to a joint statement that excludes variables that are core to Pakistan’s position on Kashmir? Arguably, the statement is part of Pakistan’s renewed efforts to bring India to the negotiating table — preparing to step down from its demands (that India roll back the abrogation of Article 370).

This demand has usually undercut the multiple calls for dialogue that Shehbaz Sharif has made as Prime Minister, resulting in Indian indifference. Note that the new Pakistani chargé d'affaires at the High Commission in New Delhi avoided any mention of Article 370 in his address during the Pakistan National Day reception in March 2024. Hence, regardless of whether a thaw is forthcoming in the frozen India-Pakistan bilateral, it would have been in Pakistan’s interest to tease an evolved and pragmatic position on the Kashmir issue, through a joint statement with Saudi Arabia.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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