By Brian M Downing
Ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are long-standing but for the most part have not stood out in the turbulent affairs of the region. However, increased tensions with Iran, the Arab Spring, and growing disenchantment with the United States are making the relationship more expansive, more prominent, and more dangerous.
The Saudis are supporting the Pakistani army's militant client-groups, hiring its soldiers, and seeking to benefit from the country's nuclear weaponry. This is bringing increased tensions with both Iran and the US - no mean feat today given their adversarial positions.
Madrassas and elites
Saudi Arabia, as is well known, has been funding religious schools, (madrassas), in Pakistan since at least the 1980s, when they were veritable boot camps indoctrinating young men to take up the fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. Support continued after the Russians left in 1989, and today the madrassas are the only schooling available to most Pakistani boys.
Saudi funding has little influence on the content of the schooling. That is shaped by the indigenous Deobandi movement, which parallels the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, especially in austerity, militancy, hatred for Shi'ism, and hostility to the West. The Saudis do not seek to win converts; they seek to win allies - the generals and the Deobandi faithful.
Pakistani generals find the faithful to be more enthusiastic participants in militant groups than less pious and increasingly secular Pakistanis. It is the pious who fervently support the insurgency in India-administered Kashmir and the suppression of Shi'ite and Christian groups at home. Sunni zeal, both countries realize, can be channeled into useful directions.
The struggle with Iran
Strains between Saudi Arabia and Iran were held in check while the shah was in power, as each figured in the US's "dual pillars" program for Gulf security. Neither was a major military power, but both were ambitious arms purchasers. With the accession of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his calls for Islamist revolution under Iran's aegis, the two states became bitter rivals.
The Saudi fear of Iran is a veritable obsession. They see Iran as a rising power determined to dominate the Gulf area and establish a "Shi'ite Crescent" stretching into Syria and Lebanon. The Saudis are determined to prevent this by confronting Iran wherever possible, including in Afghanistan where Iran is tied to northern, non-Pashtun peoples.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan collaborated with the US to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), but their interests diverged from those of the US after the Soviet withdrawal (1989). In the chaotic aftermath, Pakistan turned more directly to its Indian foe, and Saudi Arabia to its Iranian foe. Both foes had appreciable influence in the government then in Kabul.
Pakistani intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence - ISI) and Saudi counterparts supported a coup led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - a ruthless Pashtun warlord who fought his mujahideen rivals as much as he fought the Russians. The coup failed, in part due to US opposition, but Hekmatyar remained available for other intrigues.
Saudi Arabia surreptitiously supports Pakistan in its surreptitious support of Afghan insurgents, though both efforts are becoming increasingly apparent. Various insurgent groups - the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar), and the Haqqanis - are fighting Western forces, but are being groomed for continued service against other countries, including Iran.
Pakistan does not share Saudi Arabia's overt hostility to Iran, but its cooperation with Riyadh may lead to increased hostility from Iran. This will be especially so if ISI and Saudi counterparts continue backing the Jundullah - a Baloch separatist group responsible for terrorist bombings in southeastern Iran.
Growing distance from the US
Pakistan was irked when the US abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left. The sanctions imposed by the US when Pakistan developed nuclear weapons were resented as an affront to an ally since the early days of the Cold War. The US intermittently sees the need for democracy in the land, and much to the Pakistani generals' irritation the US is now in one of those intermittent periods.
Saudi-US relations are reaching new lows. Riyadh was keenly disappointed four years ago when Washington backed away from military threats against Iran's nuclear program and refused to aid Israel's preparations for a pre-emptive strike. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an imminent danger; the US is daunted by Iran's ability to retaliate in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf.
The Saudis are gravely alarmed over the Arab Spring and outraged that the US pressed for president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down. Saudi Arabia has embarked on a program of supporting authoritarian rule in Syria, Yemen, and most notably Bahrain, where Saudi troops brutally suppressed calls for reform.
The Saudis see autocracy as an appropriate and religiously sanctioned form of government and one essential to their security. The US has intermittently seen autocracy as unjust but now sees it as an outmoded and doddering institution foredoomed to fall throughout the region.
The Saudis warned the US not to oust Saddam as it would bring to power a Shi'ite majority beholden to Iran. Iraq's new army, now rid of its Sunni commanders, will be predominantly Shi'ite and allied with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps - a partnership that goes back to the insurgency against the US and even to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Indeed, the Saudis fear that Iran is directing a Shi'ite resurgence across the region and will soon brandish nuclear weapons. Exasperated with the US, Saudi Arabia is building ties with Sunni states and peoples - increasingly by hiring their soldiers.
Saudi-Pakistani security cooperation
Pakistan, though overwhelmingly Sunni, has millions of Shi'ites. Pakistan does not offer a precise percentage but Western intelligence estimates say 20%, or about 34 million people.
Pakistan's lack of candor on its Shi'ite population betokens official concern that the Shi'ites are disloyal and look to the Iranian ayatollahs - a concern that after the Iranian revolution of 1979 led to the ISI's organization, in conjunction with the Deobandis, the Sipah-i-Sahaba militant group charged with intimidating the country's Shi'ites (and the occasional Christian as well).
Life for most Saudi men has entailed a good deal of leisure and privilege - the result of oil wealth flowing into the kingdom. Almost effortless prosperity has left Saudi boys with outlooks inconducive to military discipline and incompatible with the extreme rigors that extended combat imposes.
It is not for nothing that the hardscrabble fields of Sparta and Prussia brought forth powerful armies, or that the soldiers from the tough lands of North Vietnam prevailed over those from the more prosperous South, or that US combat troops today come far more from working-class backgrounds than from affluent ones.
The Saudis recognize this and saw it in their less-than-remarkable performance in the First Gulf War of 1991 and before that in the inability to retake Mecca after the 1979 uprising. There are concerns that tribal discontent might spread into the national guard, which comprises numerous tribal militias the likes of which (the Ikhwan) rose against Abdul Aziz - a distant event but one with lasting concerns.
Military service has been part of the lives of young men in the Pakistani Punjab at least since the British East India Company set up indigenous forces 200 years ago. It was Punjabi soldiers who later became the backbone of the British imperial army and who served Britain in both world wars. Soldiering for foreign powers, then, is an honored tradition there.
Saudi-funded madrassas are no longer chiefly found in Pashtun regions in the northwest. They have proliferated in the Punjab in recent years and are becoming boot camps indoctrinating young men to take up the fight against Shi'ism and other enemies of Crypto-Zionist Saudi Wahhabi autocracy....
Pakistan has for decades now had thousands of ground troops and mercenary veterans positioned in Saudi Arabia, serving both internal and external security roles. Saudi rulers, like many autocrats before them, retain foreign troops to perform the untidy task of repressing their own people. The Bourbons had the Swiss, Chinese rulers had the Mongols to deal with internal unrest. Pakistani soldiers in recent weeks are thought to have helped crush Shi'ite demonstrations in nearby Bahrain and perhaps quelled them in the Saudi Eastern Province as well.
The Saudis have also recruited veterans of Saddam's disbanded army. They are Sunni and despise the Shi'ites - the people who took power in Iraq and whom they see as in league with "Persia". This is a resonant and useful outlook to the Saudis. Bolstered by Pakistani and Iraqi formations, Saudi Arabia will stand against the Shi'ite bloc.
The legion of foreigners will also aid in preventing or settling the numerous border skirmishes that occur on the Arabian Peninsula. They may one day fight the Houthi insurgents in Yemen, who, with little evidence, are thought to be working with Iran. Pakistani pilots are thought to have already attacked Yemeni positions in previous conflicts.
The Arab Spring is as alarming in Saudi Arabia as it is welcome in most of the rest of the world. Growing demands for representative government along its periphery pose security threats, as though Arab youths are latter-day Jacobins eager to spread their revolutionary creed. Only in Libya do the Saudis support change as Muammar Gaddafi plotted to assassinate the Saudi monarch back in 2004.
Saudi Arabia has plans involving Pakistan's nuclear abilities, which it has likely funded for decades, and Pakistan is rapidly increasing its nuclear arsenal. The Saudis seek a reliable retaliatory force in the event Iran launches an overwhelming ground invasion, or initiates a missile war on cities and oil sites, or one day uses its own nuclear weapons in the region.
Some reports assert that Pakistan may deploy nuclear weapons onto Saudi bases if they have not already. This is at present unlikely, but a country with great wealth could someday contract for such an arrangement from a deeply impoverished nation, or perhaps arrange for an outright purchase.
Alternately, Saudi Arabia could purchase the expertise in physics and engineering, which it presently lacks, and embark on its own nuclear program - an undertaking the US would never help with. One could see a nuclear and conventional consortium of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China come into being - a new entente stretching from East Asia to the Persian Gulf.
Problems and Instabilities
Expanded Saudi relations with Pakistan will bring definite reactions, perhaps most obviously with the US. Saudi support for Deobandi militancy has been long known, but its dovetailing with Pakistani support for the Taliban is becoming increasingly obvious and deeply irritating.
Hopes for a competent and respected civilian government may be on the wane as the Pakistani army and state align themselves more closely with Saudi Arabia - and China as well. These emerging partners care nothing for democracy and look mainly for stability. The opinions of Washington are of decreasing interest in Riyadh, Islamabad, and Pakistan's military capital, Rawalpindi.
In regard to Afghanistan, the ascent of Deobandi/Wahhabi militancy is increasingly worrisome to non-Pashtun peoples who have had to endure the hard hand of Taliban administration and justice, adding to Washington's woes in stabilizing the country.
The Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazarras, and others are alarmed by Pakistani and Saudi influence in the Taliban, and by peace negotiations influenced by them that could well lead to another round of war with the Taliban. The non-Pashtun are seeking diplomatic support, coalescing their old militias, and bracing for the worst. In recent weeks, key non-Pashtun officials have been assassinated, and, in the north, blame is attached to ISI.
Iran finds fault with events in Afghanistan as well. Iran has long supported northern peoples against the Taliban, who killed Shi'ite Hazarras in the thousands. Iran backed the Northern Alliance long after the US quit the game, helped drive out the Taliban in 2001, and will not allow them to return to power, especially now that their Saudi ties are strengthening.
Iran is increasingly angered by the presence of Pakistani troops and mercenaries in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. Former Pakistani soldiers helped Saudi and Bahraini security forces put down Shi'ite demonstrators in Pearl Square, and recently Iran upbraided a Pakistani diplomat on this.
Saudi-Pakistani support for Baloch militants inside Iran such as the Jundullah could well backfire. The Baloch people straddle the Iranian-Pakistani border and those residing in western Pakistan are fighting for independence from Islamabad - perhaps with the help of India. They are far more likely to succeed than their brethren in Iran. And of course Iran's Revolutionary Guards could help the cause.
Saudi Arabia will be inserting itself further into the old rivalry between Pakistan and India, with China already very much on the Pakistani side. The Saudis can almost certainly remain aloof from overt involvement in any fighting that might break out, as they have little to offer militarily.
The Saudis and Chinese will, however, become increasingly associated with the network of terrorist groups that ISI has long cultivated. In time, however, they may be able to prevail upon ISI to break with these groups - an end that US policy has pursued for a decade or more now with nothing to show. But having bred and trained the many terrorist groups, on breaking with them, Pakistan might well face their concerted and lethal wrath.
Pakistan feels it can skillfully juggle Iran and Saudi Arabia without falling out with either, much as it is juggling the US and China. But the latter act is failing badly and Pakistan could see Iran turning on it, perhaps by threatening the pipeline running into Pakistan. The last thing Pakistani generals want is to be opposed by Iran in the west and by India in the east, but their stewardship over national security has been marked by failure, defeat, and loss of territory.
Saudi Arabia could find itself in the position, alongside China, of propping up a failing state, one wracked by separatist movements, political instability, growing recognition as a sponsor of terrorism, and a looming demographic catastrophe from 50% of its people being under the age of 22. The US may wish to be rid of Pakistan as one might wish to be rid of a profligate, untrustworthy, and self-destructive colleague.
The Saudis might also note that many autocrats who relied on mercenaries for internal and external security have found them acting on their own and enmeshed in political intrigues. This may be all the more worrisome as the country is facing a momentous succession period as the dwindling number of the founding king's sons give way to the hundreds of ambitious grandsons.
There can be little doubt that Pakistani soldiers on the Arabian peninsula retain contact with ISI. Nor is there doubt that ISI has fond but improbable hopes of playing a larger role in Saudi Arabia than just supplying a few sepoy regiments.....