Pakistan’s insistence that the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) support its stand on the Kashmir issue, especially against the abrogation of Article 370, has caused a rift in its relations with Saudi Arabia.
The rift is also costing Islamabad financially as it has been forced to pay back a $1 billion loan it availed from Saudi Arabia, which has also stopped supplying crude oil to Pakistan on deferred payments since May.
Both nations had announced in November 2018 a $6.2 billion agreement to help Pakistan tide over its financial problems, with Saudi Arabia providing crude oil for $3.2 billion under a deferred payment plan.
The agreement, which had a provision for extension by two years, expired in May. Pakistan's request for an extension of the facility has not got any response.
Cracks began to appear in Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi asked Riyadh to convene a meeting of the OIC on Kashmir.
In February, Pakistan made a request for an OIC meeting to discuss the Kashmir issue but Saudi Arabia turned it down.
On 5 August last year, India abrogated Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, leading to Pakistan raising a hue and cry over the move.
Qureshi, who has been vocal in criticising Riyadh for not considering its demand, threatened that Islamabad would convene a meeting of OIC members which supported its stand on the Kashmir issue.
The OIC is a group of 59 Islamic nations in which Saudi Arabia wields considerable clout.
Qureshi’s statement drew the ire of people in Pakistan, who said he had been careless in his expressing his views.
On 22 May this year, Pakistan failed to garner support from OIC members on Kashmir. It led to its Prime Minister Imran Khan commenting: “The reason (lack of OIC support) is that we have no voice and there is a total division amongst us. We cannot even come together as a whole on the OIC meeting on Kashmir.”
Experts are amused at Pakistan’s insistence that as a friend, Saudi Arabia should automatically support it against India. Some have dubbed Pakistan’s views as “childish”.
Pakistan’s problems have been compounded by improving bilateral relations between India and key OIC members such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Bilateral trade between India and Saudi Arabia has increased since the 2017-18 fiscal after a drop in 2016-17. More importantly, India’s imports from the Gulf nation during 2017-18 and 2018-19 have increased by 10 per cent and 29 per cent respectively.
Some of the major Indian corporates such as L&T, Tatas, Wipro and TCS have a strong presence in Saudi Arabia, while some of Saudi firms such as Aramco and ADNOC have invested in India, especially in petrochemical projects.
Besides, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a good rapport with Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This is despite Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan trying his best to win over the Saudi Crown Prince.
In February last year, Khan turned a chauffeur for Prince Salman, driving the latter to his official residence, setting aside protocol. It helped in the Crown Prince signing memorandums of understanding (MoUs) valued at US $20 billion then.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s belligerence as an OIC member is linked to its growing proximity to China. But with Saudi Arabia’s patience tested, it asked Pakistan to return $1 billion out of the $3 billion given to it.
China stepped in to bail out Pakistan with the obvious motive of joining hands to take on India. Last week, there were two significant developments in Sino-Pakistan relations.
One, China raked the Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council, though it failed to get other members’ support in its efforts to embarrass India.
Second, Beijing helped Pakistan pay back $1 billion to Saudi Arabia and thus save the Khan government’s face.
Experts are of the view that Pakistan’s aggression on the Kashmir policy, especially in OIC forum, could now derail even the MoUs signed by Saudi Arabia last year.
Pakistan has to measure its steps since Prince Salman reportedly acts on “impulse” given his young age. This is also a reason why China is exercising caution in its relations with Gulf nations.
However, reports say that China could further help Pakistan by giving it another $2 billion to repay its debts to Saudi Arabia.
Historically, Riyadh and Islamabad have had strong bilateral relations in the financial, trade and military sectors. In December last year, Pakistan skipped a summit called to discuss major issues facing the Muslim world, at Saudi Arabia’s bidding. Islamabad was asked to stay away as Riyadh’s bitter rivals Iran and Turkey took part in it.
The current rift in their relations should be a cause for concern to the Khan government which is yet to tide over the financial crisis it inherited when it came to power.
But it was a risk that Pakistan chose to take with Qureshi saying: “It’s right, I’m taking a position despite our good ties with Saudi Arabia…We cannot stay silent anymore on the sufferings of the Kashmiris.”
For Pakistanis, the fear now is that their country should not fall into the fire from a frying pan. China is capable of extracting its pound of flesh for such financial aids. The Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka in a perfect example of this.
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