NEW YORK // Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are expected to sign an agreement on security and defence cooperation when the kingdom’s crown prince visits Islamabad this weekend.
The trip comes after a flurry of meetings between defence and military officials from the two countries, part of a concerted effort to strengthen their relationship as the United States recalibrates its approach to the region.
The highest-level public meetings between Riyadh and Islamabad in six years began last month with successive visits to Pakistan by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, and the deputy defence minister, Prince Salman bin Sultan. They were followed last week by the first overseas trip by Pakistan’s new army chief, Raheel Sharif.
During his three-day trip, Gen Sharif met King Abdullah and military officials to discuss plans for a “new era in strategic partnership”, according to a Pakistan army spokesman.
Analysts say both countries are looking to deepen their strategic military ties as the US begins to shifts its resources.
“In view of current challenges, there is a need to further strengthen defence cooperation between the two countries and a new era of strategic relationship needs to start,” the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif said last month during Prince Salman’s visit.
US troops will pull out of Afghanistan later this year and with them the more a billion dollars of annually appropriated US aid, both civilian and military, will begin to dwindle and become a less reliable resource.
Most worryingly for Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US are going through a process of rapprochement.
Prince Salman’s visit in particular was “an indicator that the warming of ... security ties is genuine and not just for show, since [he] handles a great deal of the operational heavy lifting at Saudi Arabia’s defence ministry – including major initiatives on Syria, military procurement and regional cooperation”, said David Weinberg, who studies Saudi affairs at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies think tank.
Prince Salman was until recently the deputy to the Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is also his brother, and was considered to be one of the key figures in Riyadh’s efforts to finance, arm and train Syrian rebels.
For Pakistan, military and civilian aid from the US has been crucial to help stabilise its teetering economy. Even though it is likely that the two countries discussed continuing US support after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, “there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to aid from the US”, said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk and security consultancy, and a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
A complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan “means that Pakistan has to look to alternative sources to guarantee its own stability, that’s why the Saudis are being engaged,” Mr Rafiq said. “The Saudis are engaging Pakistan for their own reasons.”
While Pakistan is helping Saudi Arabia train Syrian rebels, according to Saudi sources first quoted in a report by the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, Riyadh’s most pressing security priority aside from Syria is Iran, especially as the US negotiates a deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The Saudis fear that Iran will get access to a nuclear weapon despite signing an interim accord with Washington in which it promised to scale back uranium enrichment in return for limited sanctions relief.
Saudi officials have hinted in the past that they could obtain nuclear arms from Pakistan to counter Iran if necessary, and analysts in Washington say the recent talks, while more than just show, are also meant to send a message.
The meetings cause “the White house to pay attention, and cause the Iranians to pay attention”, said Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia and on Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gulf and Energy Policy programme.
“The White House is watching these meetings with concern firstly because of the nuclear issue and secondly because of the nuclear issue.”
Prince Salman has visited Pakistani weapons factories and it is likely that any agreement signed next week will involve Saudi purchases of arms or equipment.
Saudi Arabia has mostly turned to European suppliers and, for missile systems it cannot get from the West, to China, said Mr Weinberg, and even Pakistan’s most advanced defence items, such as the JF-17 fighter jet it co-produces with China, fall far behind.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have close political and military ties going back to at least the late 1960s.
Thousands of Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia following Iran’s 1979 revolution to bolster national security, and it is thought that Riyadh poured hundreds of millions of dollars into subsidising Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project, which culminated with the successful testing of an atom bomb in 1998.
Mr Sharif’s return to power last year is another key element in the deepening cooperation. The conservative Mr Sharif spent eight years in exile in Saudi Arabia and is much closer to Riyadh than the last government.
A senior member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, suggested in a recent interview withe the Wall Street Journal that Pakistan could provide Saudi Arabia with a nuclear weapon, saying the “arrangement with Pakistan is too strong” to dismiss an almost overnight nuclearisation of the Arab peninsula with their help .
But such an arrangement is far from a fait accompli, and with a long border shared with Iran, a substantial Shiite population and a long-term economic interest in keeping good relations with Iran if sanctions are lifted, Pakistan “has its own balancing act to perform”, Mr Rafiq said.
“I think Pakistan will be limited in how much they’re going to comply with whatever the Saudis are wishing for,” he said. “Pakistan has in many ways been part of a Sunni alliance in the Gulf, but it has resisted efforts to pull it in fully and so maintained ties with Iran.”
The war in Syria is Riyadh’s other major regional security priority and analysts said the issue is being addressed in the Saudi-Pakistan discussions, with some speculating that a formal agreement over a more substantial role in training Saudi-backed Syrian rebels could be struck.
“It appears that the KSA was unable to expand the training programme run in Jordan with US cooperation to the much larger numbers it seeks to train, and so the Pakistani army is a good alternative because it is professional and capable, as well as having a long-standing relationship with KSA,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
The two countries’ intelligence agencies and militaries helped train thousands of Islamist fighters during the Afghan-Soviet war, which ultimately led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s use of these militants in Afghanistan and against its rival India have come back to haunt the country, which is now trying to engage in peace talks with Taliban factions bent on overthrowing the Pakistani state.
These groups are also increasing their attacks on Shiites in Pakistan, and Pakistani officials asked the Saudi foreign minister during his visit last month for help in reducing sectarian violence in the country.
Pakistani officials claim that much of the financing for sectarian militants in the country comes from Saudi-based charities and private donors.