Pakistan denies Saudi Arabia rift, but Qureshi’s rush to China soon after Bajwa snub tells different tale

Pakistan on Thursday may have denied reports of a rift with Saudi Arabia, but its recent actions and comments tell a different tale.

Note how Shah Mahmood Qureshi rushed to China on Thursday for a two-day summit with its “all-weather friend” just days after army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was denied an audience with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman during his visit to the Kingdom.

Add to that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent remarks that news of a breakdown in relations with Saudi Arabia is “completely baseless”, but in the same breath adding that Pakistan’s future is connected to China.

Imran added that China had stood by Pakistan through good and bad times. “We are further strengthening our ties with China. China also needs Pakistan very much. Unfortunately, Western countries are using India against China,” Imran said.

Reports of strain in relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been doing the rounds ever since Riyadh declined to toe Islamabad’s line on Kashmir.

Pakistan has been pushing the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest intergovernmental body after the UN, for a meeting of foreign ministers since India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir last August.

Islamabad’s attempts to garner international support against India for withdrawing Jammu and Kashmir’s special status have not been successful, to say the least.

A large part of this can be chalked up to the Jeddah-based OIC, the largest bloc of Islamic countries in the world, which is dominated by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, not giving Pakistan an opportunity to take aim at India from their perch.

India has categorically told the international community that the scrapping Article 370 of the Constitution was its internal matter and advised Pakistan to accept reality and stop all anti-India propaganda.

Qureshi, a key player

Qureshi seems to be at the centre of this drama.

The foreign minister recently criticised the Saudi government in a TV interview (a first) and threatened to sidestep the Kingdom by calling an OIC meet.

Qureshi had said, “Today, I am telling the OIC to convene the meeting of the council of foreign ministers. If they cannot do it, then I will be compelled to ask the prime minister [Imran Khan] to call a meeting of Islamic countries [Iran, Turkey and Malaysia] that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir.”

While the Saudis did not respond directly to Qureshi’s remarks, they did stop renewing an oil credit of $3.2 billion to Pakistan and also demanded the repayment of a loan given to Islamabad in 2018 after a visit from Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Part of that loan was duly repaid with an assist from its deep-pocketed benefactor: China.

Pakistan draws China closer

In a video message ahead of his departure to China, Qureshi gushed about his “very important trip to China”.

“I am leaving on a very important visit to China. I had a discussion with the prime minister regarding this visit yesterday. My delegation will represent the stance of the political and military leadership of the country. I am hopeful that my meeting with Foreign Minister Wang will prove to be beneficial for both countries,” Qureshi said.

The Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministers, meeting at the island resort of Hainan, are slated to discuss a host of issues, including the progress of the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Islamabad’s request for a $1 billion loan.

Meanwhile, Islamabad’s relations with the Kingdom seem to be on a downward slope.

Kingdom puts distance

There are plenty of reasons for the Kingdom wanting to put space between itself and Pakistan.

Jeremy Garlick, author of The Impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: From Asia to Europe, told Nikkei Asian Review Saudi Arabia’s hesitance stems from its desire to avoid becoming part of China and Pakistan’s attempts at containing India.

“Saudi Arabia is closely allied with the US, which may also be [applying behind-the-scenes pressure on] Saudi Arabia to stay away from Chinese initiatives,” said Garlick, an assistant professor with the Jan Masaryk Center for International Studies at the University of Economics in Prague.

This snub to the all-powerful army chief Bajwa, whose visit to Riyadh was aimed at containing the fallout from Qureshi’s explosive remarks, is sure to send a message to the Pakistani establishment, who are already said to be unhappy with Imran.

As per this Economic Times piece, “While Imran Khan has sought to expand traditional close ties with Turkey riding on its president’s ambitions to emerge as a leader of the Islamic World, Saudi Arabia continues to matter for Pakistan’s most powerful institution: Army.”

The piece argued that it is inconceivable that Qureshi did not have Imran’s backing and that the entire episode did not sit well with the generals in Rawalpindi, and has left Imran in an unenviable situation.

Pakistan has historically been a strong military ally of Saudi Arabia.

But it seems that Beijing has, for the moment at least, supplanted Riyadh as Islamabad’s main backer.

With inputs from PTI

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