It’s been a tough few weeks for both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Riyadh took a major blow to its Aramco oil facilities earlier last month, paving the way for a “maximum pressure campaign” against Tehran, and more U.S. troops in the kingdom. On the other hand, Islamabad’s efforts to globalize the Kashmir crisis are now accompanied by defense guarantees to the kingdom and a rare attempt at Gulf mediation. For Pakistan to maintain its consistent support for Riyadh, without sacrificing neutrality towards Tehran, it must focus its support on Saudi military “capabilities” as opposed to “ambitions,” and tie future efforts to the broader cause of regional peace.
Central to Pakistan’s success with Saudi Arabia has been its fundamental policy distinction: To embrace the kingdom’s external security needs without serving as an inlet for internal convergence. Almost all powers that have had a say in Riyadh’s foreign policy thinking have ended up in action. Washington’s joint military operations in Syria and Yemen, Tel Aviv and Riyadh’s rampant military pursuits vis-à-vis Tehran, UAE’s renewed commitment to containing Houthi rebels, and the Saudi-led bloc’s collective boycott of Iran and allies.
For Pakistan to remain an exception, it must tailor its neutrality posture to past positions on gulf disputes – Yemen, Iraq, Libya – while advocating political solutions to hotly contested conflicts, such as Syria. Incentives for direct engagement are likely to appear lucrative at some point, but it is in Islamabad’s best interests to prolong this tactical detachment posture, and avoid overstepping the bounds of regional peace.
It is important to note that both Saudi Arabia and Iran cite regional security as their rationale for divergent actions in the gulf. Thus, what qualifies as real support to the Saudis is Islamabad’s alignment with the Saudi brand of regional peace, and not just a mere endorsement of the kingdom’s wars. Pakistan’s decision to train and equip Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) this week, is one example of Riyadh’s warm reception. Lt. Gen. Fahad Al-Motair, serving Commander of RSLF, lauded it as a key move towards “regional peace and stability.” Even on the diplomatic front, Riyadh has chosen not to engage Islamabad in the diplomatic and military cornering of Iran. Confrontation seldom emerges as a metric between the two.
A potential limitation on Riyadh’s reciprocity toward Islamabad is the broadening of U.S. interests in the kingdom’s national and foreign policy calculus. Riyadh’s consistent outreach towards India, and recent reconsideration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have all arrived at a time when Washington’s own bilateral ties with these powers demand strategic advances. In fact, Khan’s Saudi-Iran mediation offer is itself a result of U.S. initiative, which is likely to keep influencing any attempts at overt engagement in the gulf. Thus, tacit U.S. approval limits the degree to which Islamabad can pursue an independent path with Riyadh, or voice its reservations on U.S. policy positions.
Ultimately, too much maneuverability with Riyadh – whether in the form of overt military support or a robust security narrative – is likely to backfire for Islamabad. Only a future trajectory based on past successes and future implications can steer clear of Riyadh’s broader ambitions in the Middle East.