China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and even Iran, each hold their own form of sway over the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, his country, his government, and his military. In most of the recent cases, it is Pakistan’s financial debts that has bound it to its “friends”. Pakistan is a country in crisis. It is in debt to international monetary financiers such as the IMF and the World Bank, while also owing money to other countries that have generously loaned Pakistan funds in exchange for influence over the State.
Historically, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had a supportive relationship, but today it is Pakistan’s debt crisis, and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, that have lead to a strengthening alliance between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. The alliance is not equally balanced however, as Pakistan is weak and has been easily manipulated by its very wealthy and persistent allies.
In February 2019, the Saudi Crown Prince visited Islamabad and was presented with an exquisite display of hospitality and celebration in his honour from one of the poorest countries in the world. Fortunately, the effort was worth it and the Saudi Crown Prince signed memorandums of understanding worth around $20 billion. This doubtlessly enhanced the entourage of visitors’ influence in the state.
Religious and cultural influence is the objective of Saudi’s engagement. In recent years, more than 2 million Pakistanis have travelled to Saudi Arabia to work. Their remittances are then sent back to Pakistan to not only help their families, but also to prop up the Pakistani economy. The zakat (charitable contributions) subtracted from those remittances and earnings then finds its way to fund madrassas(religious schools), and furthers the religious domination of Saudi Arabia’s teachings in Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia has influenced Pakistan since the 1970’s when the practice of funding its religious Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandi madrassas and teachers began. This practice was imposed to ensure that Pakistan follow the path of Sunni Islam. Both the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith traditions of Islam are more puritanical than the traditional Sufi Islam practiced in the majority of South Asia. The more extreme Ahl-e-Hadith tradition is fundamentally similar to Salafi or Wahhabi Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. It has also been directly linked to extremist groups in Pakistan, such as the Kashmir-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
A United States Consulate cable sent to the State Department in 2008 reported that there was an “exponential” growth in the number of madrassas active in the region and an intensification of the recruitment of militants. The cable cited the recruitment of extremist in South Punjab, and the funnelling of money toward the Kashmir region, after it was affected by an earthquake in 2005, through charities such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charity organization) and the al- Khidmat Foundation. Funds came from a number of sources, including Saudi Arabia, and “was siphoned off to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in southern and western Punjab to expand these sects’ presence in a traditionally hostile, but potentially fruitful, recruiting ground. The initial success of establishing madrassas and mosques in these areas led to subsequent annual ‘donations’ to these same clerics, originating in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” The cable goes on to discuss the quantity of the funding and identify their sources more precisely: “[Pakistani] government and non-governmental sources claimed that financial support, estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually, was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from ‘missionary’ and ‘Islamic charitable’ organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments.”
Of course this funding is not given directly to the Pakistan state, but is sent through private donations to madrassas, as funds given to the State come with rigid conditions. In April 2015, following Saudi Arabia’s approval and granting of a $1.5 billion loan to Pakistan, the Pakistani parliament overwhelmingly voted to stay neutral on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. This was a difficult balancing act for Pakistan as the war in Yemen can be summarised as Saudi’s fight against the Iranian backed Houthis. Pakistan needs to keep both its allies on its side.
To the east of Pakistan lays another ’friend’, China, which has its own weighty hold over the country. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project means that China has invested heavily in Pakistan. The total project requires an estimated USD 60 billion and is intended to give Pakistan the infrastructure it so desperately needs, in the form of roads, railways and energy projects. These will link China’s resource-rich Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with Pakistan’s strategic Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. China’s stamp is being firmly put on Pakistan’s land.
The increasing financial investments, incentives and understandings between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the specific value of which still alludes economists, is reason enough for concern. However, when viewed alongside China’s interest in the state, geo-political analysts are now asking at which point will there be a clash between Saudi’s religious rhetoric and China’s economic power play. Additionally, will President Trump, in his fight against terrorism, allow this power struggle to continue without his interference? And what role will Pakistan’s silent ally, the European Union, end up playing?