Despite recent overtures towards India and increase in trade, we have to bear in mind that Saudi Arabia was the fountainhead of Islamic resurgence worldwide and more so in South Asia.
Apart from China, it is the Saudi Arabian influence that may become more prominent in Pakistan. Despite the waning of US influence, it still has residual influence over Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; it was said that if there were two constants in the affairs of these nations it was Allah & America, in that order.
The tectonic changes wrought in Saudi affairs have perplexed watchers – what has been done by the young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was just unthinkable a few years back. It is unlikely that such draconian social reforms and economic changes can be brought about in so traditional a society without some backing. The praise heaped by Donald Trump appears to be the catalyst behind these reforms as is the forging of a pan-Arabic alliance of Sunni countries to combat Iran, Syria and Hezbollah influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has indeed become a front line US proxy – its campaign in Yemen (and obliquely against Iran) is clear proof of that.
Saudi Arabia: fountainhead of Islamic resurgence
Despite recent overtures towards India and increase in trade, we have to bear in mind that Saudi Arabia was the fountainhead of Islamic resurgence worldwide and more so in South Asia. It has actively exported and funded Wahhabi movements in J&K, root cause of our current troubles. It is axiomatic that in any Indo- Pak dispute Saudi Arabia will ally with its Muslim ally rather than us – we must have no illusions about this. How strong this support will be in the near future, however, is a moot point.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS) is “riding a tiger” in changing the status quo in his society – it is amazing how he has managed to garner loyalty from even the Saudi National Guard – a branch loyal to late King Abdullah faction of the Al Saud family – by ousting Prince Mitteb bin Abdullah. MBSs task is cut out and his country is likely to take some time to stabilise, before it can look outwards.
He will need all his wits in managing a major crisis within the royal family, having arrested some of the wealthiest and most powerful of his uncles and cousins, leading his country out of obscurantism, reducing Wahhabi influence at home and abroad. He has effectively subdued the religious hardliners – evident from unheard of freedom now provided to women. Given these far-reaching changes, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to extend its influence abroad, especially through economic dispensation. India needs to wait and watch how the situation develops, and whether Saudi funding for madrassas and jihadi groups dries up substantially.
MBS is now in full control of the four most important elements of his country – economy, media, security, and the military (Land, Naval & Air Forces), as well as its counterweight, the Saudi National Guard. He has done away with the ultra-orthodox Department of “Propagation of Virtue & Prevention of Vice” – i.e., the dreaded black-robed Wahhabi Muttawas. In one fell stroke, he has defanged the radical and ultra-orthodox elements by bringing under his wing the ‘Council of Senior Clerics’ and the unofficial ‘Awakening Clerics’. This has placed him in an autocratic position to do as he pleases.
With the era of direct American influence in the Middle East waning, Saudi rulers have moved to rapidly build up their military that does not overly rely on the United States and is capable of meeting both Iranian and jihadist threats. It has diversified weapon procurement from Russia.
The Saudi military has been, in many ways, the proverbial “chocolate cream soldiers’ army” more familiar with parade ground routines, and to provide employment opportunity to the youth. This benign role suited the monarchy, always fearful of a palace coup. It relied more on the Saudi National Guards, a force comprising more rural and loyal subjects. Defence of the country was outsourced to the US, in exchange for a secure flow of oil and through massive arms purchases.
This changed thanks to the hard lessons during its first conflict with the Houthis in 2009–2010, where the Saudi military performed poorly. In response to this, Riyadh has sought to strengthen Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and its own armed forces by urgently enhancing its special forces capabilities, upgrading training across the board, localising military production, reforming the military bureaucracy, getting the retired Pak Army Chief on board as the main strategist, and seeking out new sources of arms.
Pakistan is a vassal state
Appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif as the Commander of the Gulf Coalitions Forces has been a brilliant stroke, and has brought a sea change in the strategic and operational capability of the Saudi Forces. Improved relations with Russia have allowed Saudi Arabia to diversify its arms and equipment purchases and has also augmented the Kingdom’s influence over global oil prices. However, for the immediate future, the final arbiter of their fate still remains the US; any disruption in the supply of spares, and 90% of their equipment will turn to junk.
It is said the Saudi King can summon the Pak PM and Army Chief at a moment’s notice — even in the midst of a major domestic crisis. So to all intent and purpose, Pakistan is a vassal state, dependent for its existence and economy on external powers, be it China or Saudi Arabia. The latter has little to offer at the present moment, barring platitudes of Muslim solidarity, owing to its dwindling oil economy, expensive war against Yemen, and its confrontation with Qatar-Iran.
There also begs the question, what will be the role of Islamic fundamentalism under the new wave of liberalisation presently underway in the Kingdom? It would be difficult for Saudi Arabia to maintain a dual policy of liberal Islam at home, while supporting Wahhabi style militant organisations abroad. And when he is backed and supported by the Pentagon and Ambassador Nikki Haley, this means that an alliance is taking shape in the region under American leadership. That is certain because he has had the gumption to imprison Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the wealthiest of Saudi princes.
It may be recalled that the outspoken Al Waleed had a Twitter spat with US President Donald Trump back in 2016. Responding to Trump's calls for banning Muslims from entering the US, Bin Talal had asked him to drop out of the US Presidential elections, calling him a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America”. Little wonder he has paid for it on US directions.
Pak-Saudi nuclear and missile linkages
On the nuclear front, an unholy nexus existed between Pakistan, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, as far back as 1985. Chinese engineers established two missile bases at Al Kharj (some 100 kms south of Riyadh) and at Al Sullaylil (400 kms South of Riyadh). It was rumored, but never positively established, that an arrangement existed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that former would provide nuclear warheads to be mated with Chinese help, with the latter's CSS2 (Dong Feng) ICBMs, in the event of a strike against Israel.
Likewise, Pakistan was to have a lien on Saudi missiles to strike against India. This mutual pact was touted as the Islamic Bomb. But things have undergone a dramatic shift since those days – Pakistan now has its own SRMBMs & MRBMs, which can reach most parts of the India sub-continent, so its dependence on Saudi ICBMs is largely hypothetical.
Can the leopard change its spots?
Saudi Arabia has been the main source of funding for practically all Muslim terrorism – Moros in Philippines, Jihadi groups in Pakistan and J&K, the war in Chechnya, the Al Shabab in Africa, and all Muslim militant activities in Europe and the US. Can it continue to play this double game, or will it change course? Remember this is the same country which in the 1990s said, “today, we Muslims are 2 billion strong, out of a world population of 7 billion; in due course, we shall become 5 billion, and rule the world”. This scenario might well come true, as Muslim growth rate is 2.4 against a decline in all other faiths. Therefore any radicalisation of the faith can have serious consequences for world peace.
The void created by the USA abandoning Pakistan is likely to be filled by China, both economically and militarily. Naturally, this will have consequences for the Pak, as they will have to cede numerous concessions to the latter. Already Pakistan is deeply indebted to China for the CPEC and its further involvement in the OBOR project will push it deeper into China’s arms. With China’s strategy to surround India by creating a ‘String of Pearls’, i.e., of bases in the Indian Ocean - some in our immediate neighbourhood - it becomes essential for us to evolve a countervailing strategy.
These developments do not augur well for India, aligned as it is with the US, a nation that can change its stance at a moments notice. It would do well for the security establishment to hedge its bets, and keep the line to Russia open.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)