Pakistan lies at the crossroads of what many people traditionally consider the “Middle East” and “Asia.” Not only is it an important country in the international sphere, but so are all four of its neighbors: Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India. Pakistan’s coastline along the Arabian Sea also brings it into close contact with the Persian Gulf nations, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Historically, Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s closest ally in the Middle East, whereas China has played that role in Asia. Recent events, however, suggest that it may be becoming more difficult—or perhaps less advantageous—for Pakistan to maintain both of these “all-weather” relationships at their past levels. The country’s complex interests and needs suggest that China will be a more suitable best friend, but this is dependent on various factors, including its relations with Afghanistan, Iran, and India. At the same time, Pakistan does not seek to cut off its important relationship with Saudi Arabia, but rather wants it to recognize that the Pakistani military will not be actively involved in Middle Eastern affairs.
In April, Pakistan’s parliament unanimously voted for the country’s neutrality in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, despite the Saudi kingdom’s efforts to the contrary. Given the close diplomatic and military cooperation between the two countries in the past, this was a significant deviation from the norm. Not only have thousands of Pakistani soldiers been stationed in Saudi Arabia in previous decades, but Pakistan has also provided weapons and training for its ally. In return for Pakistan’s military support, Saudi Arabia has often provided economic incentives such as subsidized oil and financial aid to Pakistan. Besides eliciting support for its own military at home, Saudi Arabia’s courtship of Pakistan also aims to use Pakistan’s position as a nuclear power with a large military to further Saudi interests in the Middle East. The fact that Pakistan is a non-Arab, Sunni-majority country both neutralizes its threat as a potential regional rival and guarantees a certain level of diplomatic loyalty.
Several factors explain Pakistan’s refusal to participate in the Saudi campaign in Yemen, from its own sectarian troubles to China’s growing influence in the country. First, the conflict with the Houthis is a manifestation of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, getting entangled in which would be disastrous for Pakistan. The South Asian state has several reasons to maintain a good relationship with Iran, including the fact that they share a border. With security concerns along its borders with Afghanistan and India already, adding the Iranian border to its list of concerns is not something Pakistan wants. Additionally, the Saudi-Iranian antagonism is often understood to be a Sunni-Shia struggle, and given the level of sectarian violence in Pakistan already, it would be best not to exacerbate those tensions.
Besides considerations of internal security, the promise of Chinese-funded development may be an equally compelling reason for Pakistan to refuse to become involved in Yemen. A gas pipeline running from Iran to Pakistan, which might be extended into China, is currently being constructed; while paid for by China, the project is beneficial to all parties. Pakistan, for example, will receive enough natural gas to add 4,500 megawatts to its current electricity generation capability, which is much needed, considering the shortage of electricity there. There is also reason to believe that the Chinese played a direct role in Pakistan’s decision on Yemen: China, along with Russia and Iran, was clear about its disapproval of military intervention in Yemen to fight the Houthis. The Asian giant has strong incentives to ensure Pakistan’s economic stability given its ongoing investments in the country and would prefer for Pakistan to focus on domestic development rather than get sidetracked by a conflict abroad. According to a journalist for the Express Tribune, an anonymous Pakistani official told him that “what really helped Pakistan ‘weather the storm’ was a Chinese assurance of economic investment and assistance to the tune no Arab country—let alone Saudi Arabia—could match.”
China and Pakistan have been close allies for decades for several strategic reasons, including their mutual rivalry with India, but a recent deal between the two has dwarfed all previous ones. A few weeks after the decision to abstain from involvement in Yemen, Pakistan welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping for his first state trip to the country. During the visit, he announced the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a development project worth $46 billion that will connect China’s city of Kashgar to Pakistan’s port of Gwadar through roads, railways, and oil pipelines and will build infrastructure for energy generation and telecommunications. It is a promising undertaking that has the potential to uplift Pakistan, and there are signs that Pakistan is taking the opportunity seriously by addressing China’s concerns.
A major issue for the Chinese is the unstable security situation in Pakistan. In order to protect Chinese workers, the Pakistani government has taken important security measures. For example, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised President Xi that a new Special Security Division of some 10,000 troops will protect construction sites and workers. Indeed, Pakistani soldiers are being sent to protect their own nation’s economic interests at home instead of to fight in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen. This move from the Pakistani leadership seems to reflect a calculated change in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and China. The fact that President Xi assured Pakistan after its refusal to take sides in Yemen that China would support it “in the event of unraveling of its ties with the Arab world” also points to this.
Undoubtedly, there are caveats to this change in relations, as events in both South Asia and the Middle East can dramatically influence Pakistan’s foreign policy. A change in India’s power and behavior, for example, could affect the Sino-Pakistani bond. In late May, the Indian external affairs minister referred to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as “unacceptable” due to the fact that part of the development project will pass through Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which India claims as its own territory. While China and Pakistan have both dismissed this concern, it will be important to see how far India takes the issue. Since the economic corridor is a long-term project, if the distribution of power in Asia changes significantly within the next decade or so, India could try to use its influence on China to halt construction. In that case, the Kashmir dispute would probably become an urgent international issue once again. On the other hand, if China goes through with the entire plan despite pressure from India, it would be a sign of its steadfast relationship with Pakistan and rivalry with India.
Considering a different scenario, if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, Pakistan may have to keep its focus westward, which would inevitably involve cooperating with Saudi Arabia and other regional players to try to stabilize the country. Pakistan is much more likely to get involved in Afghanistan than in Yemen simply because of proximity. In contrast to Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, Pakistanis viewed Yemen as a distant issue. Saudi Arabia would necessarily be a key player if Afghanistan experiences destabilization, given its historic involvement in and relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Another test of the Pakistani-Saudi relationship would occur if Iran and the United States experience a significant improvement in relations. As Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy writes, “The Saudi nightmare is that an Iran-US rapprochement will accept Iran as a threshold nuclear state, and end US-imposed sanctions.” Because Saudi Arabia finds an Iran with nuclear capabilities to be completely unacceptable, it is possible that if the United States accepts Iran’s nuclear program, the kingdom will seek to make use of its relationship with Pakistan. That could mean anything from using Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella to deter or compel Iran to directly trying to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan. How Pakistan responds to Saudi Arabia’s appeals in a world where Iran has nuclear capabilities would be incredibly meaningful for the future of their relationship considering how such a situation would be of dire importance to Saudi Arabia. If such a day comes, Pakistan—with its own security headache, its desire to improve its standing in the international community, and its solid partnership with China—may very well be tempted enough to stand up to Saudi Arabia and refuse.
There are powerful factors pulling Pakistan toward both Saudi Arabia and China. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is an old ally, home to Islam’s holy cities, a large supplier of oil, and a provider of financial gifts. At the same time, China has largely outdone Saudi Arabia in catering to Pakistan’s economic interests, has supported Pakistan’s nuclear program over the years, and is a direct neighbor that also has friction with India. It is apparent that China’s pull is currently stronger, although it is not as if Pakistan can or will ‘pivot’ away from the Middle East—either soon or permanently. Saudi Arabia and other countries in that region will continue to be important partners for Pakistan because of historical, cultural, and economic reasons. The key difference, though, is that Pakistan’s military will not have to take action in the Middle East in order to get rewards from rich Arab states due to the country’s close economic and security cooperation with China.
The image featured in this article was taken by Patrick Tsui. The original image can be found here.