Pakistan Army Chief  General Qamar Bajwa talks with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in December 2016. Photo: Courtesy Pakistan Army
Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa talks with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in December 2016. Photo: Courtesy Pakistan Army

Riyadh wants Imran Khan to openly support the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, after formally taking over as Prime Minister of Pakistan last week. Well-placed diplomatic sources say the Saudi rulers conveyed their desire in recent communications with the new Pakistani leadership.

The latest among these came on Tuesday, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman met Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Mina. The Inter-Services Public Relations chief Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor tweeted that Crown Prince Salman helped General Bajwa to perform the Hajj ritual, and expressed support for the new government in Islamabad.

Senior military officials confirmed that Pakistan’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia on multiple fronts was discussed, including the security of the kingdom. Among these was the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), headed by former Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, as Riyadh would like the new Pakistani government to be more involved.

“The Saudi leadership wants Prime Minister Imran Khan to publicly back the coalition because they see the benefit of someone with his global reputation to provide more credence to the alliance, which has been accused of having a sectarian tinge,” a senior diplomat told Asia Times. “The Saudis want to maintain that the absence of Iran and Iraq from the Islamic military coalition is because of political differences rather than religious or ideological [factors], and they believe Pakistan’s vocal support would help in this regard, especially given recent diplomatic developments.”

Anti-terror alliance or anti-Iran?

Saudi Arabia announced the anti-terror alliance in December 2015, when it described the Islamic State as a disease tarnishing the Muslim faith. However, critics have said the alliance, which has about 40 members, appears to be aimed at Iran as much as terrorists.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador after the Government of Canada called for the release of human rights activists. That was followed by an immediate message of support by the government of Pakistan, which said it stood with Saudi Arabia over its row with Canada. The caretaker government issued that statement, but Riyadh is hoping for similar vocal support from the Imran Khan-led administration sworn in last week.

Prince Muhammad Bin Salman called Khan last week to congratulate him on winning the election, and invited him to Saudi Arabia, an offer which the Pakistani premier accepted. The trip is likely to take place early next month. Bilateral ties between Riyadh and Islamabad will be discussed in detail, along with Pakistan’s role in the IMCTC.

Khan has previously opposed Pakistan getting involved in the Saudi war on Yemen, which is aided by the kingdom’s ties with the Pakistani military.  “After the meeting in September [Khan] will say that Pakistan is very supportive of Saudi Arabia and is willing to do everything to safeguard the holy places from any attacks, which is usually interpreted as an intent of maintaining neutrality, but is accepted by the Saudis as Pakistan being willing to provide all kinds of military cooperation,” a retired military officer said to Asia Times. “However, it’s Pakistan’s support for the military coalition that will determine how many billion dollars the Saudis give us,” he said.

Pakistan is eying a $4-billion loan from the Saudi-backed Islamic Development Bank to address its balance of payments crisis. Riyadh could provide further economic favors as well, depending on how much Islamabad toes the Saudi line, as was the case for Khan’s predecessors.

Sharif prioritized ties with Saudi royals

Nawaz Sharif felt indebted to the Saudi leaders due to their support for the former premier in exile when he was ousted in a coup by former Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, and critics have long noted how Sharif prioritized Islamabad’s relations with Riyadh over others, which helped alienate Pakistan’s neighbors in Iran.

Sharif’s pro-Saudi stance and his party’s alliances with sectarian groups in Punjab meant that Khan’s PTI had wide backing from the country’s Shia population, which forms around a fifth of Pakistan’s Muslim population. “Unlike Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan is much better placed to balance relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a long-held – but perpetually unfulfilled – goal of Pakistani foreign policy,” says Shameem Akhtar, a veteran foreign policy analyst, columnist and former dean of International Relations at Karachi University.

“Imran Khan doesn’t feel personally obliged towards the Saudis, who have long bought Pakistan and considered it their satellite state. If there’s anything that could push his hand it’s the economic support provided by Riyadh, given Pakistan’s fiscal needs.”

The first indication of the new government’s position on the IMCTC will come if it provides a No Objection Certificate for General Raheel Sharif to continue to command the coalition, after the Supreme Court noted earlier this month that the previous federal cabinet had not done so.

In court proceedings, Defense Secretary Lieutenant General Zamirul Hassan (Retired) said the defense ministry had granted a No Objection notice to Gen Sharif, but the Chief Justice of Pakistan underscored that the law required approval from the cabinet.

Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, said he expects a No Objection Certificate to be granted to Gen Sharif. He also confirmed that a lot of Pakistan’s current support to the IMCTC is tacit, but “getting vocal” would be problematic for the new PM.

“The Saudi demand for open backing of the Islamic military coalition puts Imran Khan in a difficult position. I don’t think he would like to openly back the coalition, even though we support it in many ways, but not quite as openly,” Masood told Asia Times.

However, the Lieutenant General maintained that Khan would not have much of a say in the matter given the military leadership’s control over foreign policy. “I don’t think there will be much difference between the policy that Nawaz Sharif was pursuing vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia to what Imran Khan will pursue. Because it all depends on what the military feels and the policy that it decides,” he said.

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