Tuesday, 02 Mar, 2010
Saudi Arabia has been in the news lately and much of it for reasons that may unsettle some here. But a closer look at the goings-on and speculation suggests that the perceived ‘negative’ impact on Pakistan may be an exaggeration.
Yesterday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian prime minister to visit Saudi Arabia in nearly three decades and his Saudi hosts clearly rolled out the red carpet for him and his entourage. But Pakistanis needn’t worry about losing out in a zero-sum game for Saudi Arabia’s attention. The Saudis were simply acknowledging an emerging reality: that India is establishing itself as a big regional power, and trade with it is becoming increasingly important for other countries.
Afghanistan featured only marginally in the talks — the two countries called for the preservation of Afghanistan’s ‘sovereignty and independence’ — though the Indians will almost certainly be hoping that Saudi Arabia will, when the time comes, try and placate Pakistan over India’s future role in Afghanistan. Even so, it seems quite far-fetched that Saudi Arabia will side with India and veto Pakistan on anything to do with Afghanistan. The Saudis know that a period of uncertainty lies ahead for many of the areas they have an interest in, from Iraq to Yemen and Afghanistan to Iran, and they will want to avoid introducing radical new elements in the most stable of their relationships, such as they have with Pakistan. It’s worth noting, though, that where Pakistan may be interested in Saudi help, India remains fiercely opposed to it: on Kashmir. Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor had to hastily clarify, in the face of criticism from the domestic opposition, that there was no possibility of Saudi ‘mediation’ on the Kashmir issue.
The other big speculation doing the rounds is that the Saudis have leaned on Pakistan in recent weeks to move against the Afghan Taliban leaders scattered across the country here. But this too seems unlikely. While there certainly appears to have been a ‘shift’ in Pakistan’s policy on the Afghan Taliban, two other elements have probably played a bigger role in making that shift possible: renewed American pressure on Pakistan, coinciding with the start of the ‘surge’ in southern Afghanistan, and the Pakistan Army’s internal perceptions of the threat that the Afghan Taliban pose to this country. Only time will tell if the shift in policy is permanent: the army may have decided that enhanced tactical cooperation at this time is merited even though its broader strategic calculations remain the same. Either way, Saudi intervention, if it has in fact occurred, is unlikely to have been decisive.