Historical echoes in Saudi Arabia’s support for Pakistan


The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is deeply entrenched in a shared history and mutual interests. Both nations hold profound reverence for Islam, with Saudi Arabia being the citadel of the faith and Pakistan born as an Islamic republic. Personal relationships between their leaders have played a crucial role in fostering solidarity. The two countries have also stood by each other during critical situations in recent years.

Pakistan has just been through a difficult political transition, amid challenging economic and security circumstances. The general elections, held earlier this month, have resulted in the formation of a coalition government at the center. The country has also elected a new president, and its civilian and military leaders seem pretty resolved to overcome the current economic crisis. Like before, the Kingdom’s leadership supports Pakistan’s current quest for a progressive future.

The latest expression of Saudi Arabia’s solidarity with Pakistan was on display this past Saturday when the Kingdom’s Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman paid a day-long visit to Islamabad. He was the guest of honor at the Pakistan Day Parade of the Armed Forces (which is held every year on March 23 to mark the passage of the Lahore Resolution by the All-India Muslim League in 1940.) Prince Khalid was also decorated with the Nishan-e-Pakistan, the country’s highest civilian award, by the president of Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a long history of military cooperation, which began with the signing of a defense protocol in 1967. Its scope was restricted to the stationing of Pakistani military advisors and trainers in the Kingdom and the provision of training opportunities for Saudi Arabia’s officer corps at Pakistan’s military academies. Another defense protocol signed in 1982 expanded it further to include the stationing of Pakistan troops in the Kingdom for defense purposes as well as military training, defense production and sharing, and joint exercises.

Since then, the two nations’ military leaders and defense officials have met regularly to coordinate activities and strategic policies. This interaction has assumed critical value in the recent past, as achieving self-reliance in defense production is a key pillar of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Military cooperation now spans global counter-terrorism issues, with former Pakistan army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif serving as military commander of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition of 42 Muslim nations since 2017.

During his visit to Riyadh last week, Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Asim Munir met the crown prince to exchange views on security issues. He also met Prince Khalid and extending a special invitation for him to grace the Pakistan Day ceremonies. While in Pakistan, Prince Khalid met the army chief again as well as the newly-elected President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Afterwards, the state media quoted him as saying: “Saudi Arabia and Pakistan share strong historical and fraternal relations, and will always remain well-wishers of each other.”

Prince Khalid’s statement is a testament to the enduring power of history in Saudi Arabia-Pakistan ties. Likewise, in Saudi Arabia’s expression of solidarity with Pakistan, the past often reverberates in the present. Let me cite a few important instances:

In April 1940, within a month of the passage of the Lahore Resolution, Crown Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud visited Karachi. He was warmly welcomed by towering Muslim League figures including M.A.H. Ispahani, M.A. Maniar, and Karim Bhai Ibrahim. He was accompanied by a large delegation, including his five brothers. Two of them, Prince Faisal and Prince Fahd, were to become the future kings of Saudi Arabia.

In 1943, the Muslim-majority state of Bengal was hit by a devastating famine. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the party leader and Pakistan’s founding father, set up the Muslim League Bengal Relief Fund. King Abdulaziz Al-Saud was the first foreign leader who responded to his call for help with a handsome donation of 10,000 pounds to this fund.

In November 1947, two months after Pakistan’s creation, Jinnah sent his special envoy Malik Feroz Khan Noon to Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations in the Middle East. He was received personally by King Abdulaziz, who also offered his royal plane to take him to Dhahran on his way back to Karachi.

King Abdulaziz’s successors have kept this tradition alive by consistently espousing the unique bond between the two nations and Pakistan’s core value in the eyes of Saudi Arabia.

For example, before travelling to Karachi in April 1954 to inaugurate the Saudi Arabia-funded housing colony for Indian-Muslim migrants called Saudabad, King Saud wrote a letter to Pakistan Gov. Gen. Ghulam Muhammad, stating: “We will be happy if Pakistan will be stronger, no doubt. Pakistan’s strength is our strength, and if the Jews attack on the holy land, then Pakistan will be in the front of the defenders as it was promised.”

In the 1960s, strong foundations of military cooperation were laid under the leadership of King Faisal. While addressing a banquet in Karachi (the city he was familiar with, having visited in 1943), King Faisal said: “If we have shown brotherly feelings and cooperation for this Islamic country, it is because this is the least of what our religion and belief demand from us.”

The 1970s witnessed the expansion of economic and military cooperation. Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan in the 1971 war, diplomatically and militarily. In 1974, Lahore became the venue for the OIC’s second Islamic Summit, which helped to lift the public morale of Pakistan after the loss of the eastern wing. The Kingdom also contributed the bulk of around $1 billion in foreign assistance received by Pakistan during the decade.

In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan allied with the US against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. In his memoir, “The Afghanistan File,” Prince Turki Al-Faisal provides a fascinating account of Saudi Arabia-Pakistan intelligence collaboration to defeat the Soviets by 1989. In December 1980, Crown Prince Fahd visited Islamabad to declare: “Any interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan would be considered interference or injury to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

In May 1998, Saudi Arabia stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Pakistan when it was compelled to conduct nuclear tests in response to India’s nuclear explosions. The Kingdom provided Pakistan with emergency financial support and oil on deferred payments to withstand the devastating impact of economic sanctions.

I arrived in Pakistan as the Kingdom’s envoy in 2001, well before the tragic events of 9/11 and completed my diplomatic tenure in Islamabad in 2009, when the War on Terror in Afghanistan was still in full swing. With the instructions and guidance of my leadership, I maintained close interaction with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders to ensure its security and stability during this critical period.

When a devastating earthquake hit Azad Jammu and Kashmir in 2005, Saudi Arabia was the first country to establish an air corridor to provide emergency relief to victims. Two state-of-the-art field hospitals, equipped with medical and nursing staff and surgical instruments, were established to deal with a tragedy that claimed over 80,000 innocent lives.

After the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, the Arab world faced unprecedented turmoil. Ultimately, with diligence and resolve, the Kingdom’s current leadership was able to work through its devastating implications, eventually leading regional reconciliation and development processes across the Middle East. However, solidarity with Pakistan has remained a persisting feature of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy during this challenging period.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, through his pioneering Vision 2030, has enabled the Kingdom to achieve unprecedented socio-economic marvels, redefining its regional and global profile. He is also credited with initiating a new outlook on developing Saudi Arabia’s relations with the South Asia region. With Pakistan in particular, the focus has now shifted from providing financial support to investing in its economic development.

The crown prince had travelled to Pakistan in 2019, pledging $20 billion worth of investments in the energy and mining sectors. Since then, while meeting successive Pakistan civilian and military leaders in Riyadh, he has continued to reassure them of the Kingdom’s steadfast support for the country. The leaders and the people of Pakistan need to unite politically and benefit from the great economic opportunities offered by his Vision 2030.

To conclude, this week’s display of Saudi Arabia’s solidarity by Prince Khalid during Pakistan Day celebrations must inspire the nation toward this end. Our shared history serves as a foundation upon which to build a future characterized by peace, prosperity and progress.

Ali Awadh Asseri served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2009 and received Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Hilal-e-Pakistan, for his services in promoting the Saudi Arabia-Pakistan relationship. He holds a doctorate in economics from Beirut Arab University and authored the book “Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror” (Oxford, 2009). He is a member of the board of trustees at RASANAH, the International Institute for Iranian Studies, Riyadh.

Sara Hatoum

Sara Hatoum

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