Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at a protest against India's move to scrap the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir on August 05, 2020, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Muhammed Semih Ugurlu/Anadolu Agency

PESHAWAR – In what seems to be a damage-control measure, Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa will meet Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz to smooth relations after the Pakistani foreign minister’s recent outburst against the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

General Bajwa, sources claim, would also try to coax the Saudi leadership into restoring revoked financial support of more than US$6.2 billion in cash and an oil facility. 

Last week, Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Admiral Nawaf Saeed Al-Malkiy met the Chief of Army Staff to discuss “matters of mutual interest.” Diplomatic sources claim the Saudi envoy delivered a message to the military chief from the king, conveying his displeasure over the statement by Pakistan’s foreign minister.

“Yes, he [General Bajwa] is traveling,” Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Babar Iftikhar confirmed, adding the visit was pre-planned and “primarily military affairs oriented.”

Earlier, in the biggest major policy shift in decades, Pakistan publically declared it would convene a meeting of “like-minded” Muslim countries to discuss “atrocities and human rights abuses” in Kashmir if the Saudi-led OIC remained sluggish in summoning a session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM).

Speaking on a televised talk show last week, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Pakistan would consider holding a session without the OIC umbrella if it continued to ignore Islamabad’s submission for a CFM meeting.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi briefs media representatives in Islamabad on March 1, 2020. His ministry supports a new ‘Engage Africa’ policy. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

Replying to a question about the possible repercussions of his statement, Qureshi said he understood the implications. “I’m taking a position despite our good ties with Saudi Arabia,” he added. 

As for the Kuala Lumpur summit last December, he admitted they were under the illusion that the summit would shatter the unity of Muslim bloc. “We skipped the Kuala Lumpur summit on Saudi’s request and now Pakistanis demand from Riyadh is to show leadership on a core humanitarian issue,” he added.

Days before the foreign minister’s comments on the OIC, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a phone call to President Arif Alvi and assured his government’s unflinching support for the Kashmir issue. The Turkish president also gave the same affirmation to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan earlier at the Eid festival.

Pakistan has been pushing for an OIC’s CFM meeting since last August when India abrogated Article 370, annexing the whole Kashmir region including Pakistan-administrated Gilgit Baltistan in the Union Territories. 

Every time Pakistan approached the OIC about the CFM meeting, the Saudis scuttled the move primarily because they could not afford to annoy India, which is a $27 billion market for Saudi crude oil.

The Saudis also import $6 billion worth of merchandise from India. Knowing fully well that Riyadh cannot go against India, Pakistan still showed a knee-jerk reaction over OIC affairs.

Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senator from Islamabad and a senior politician and journalist, told Asia Times that the statement by Foreign Minister Qureshi, a year after India’s annexation of “occupied Kashmir, is more an expression of Pakistan’s frustration at a lack of progress on Kashmir under the OIC platform.”

“Despite repeated requests from Islamabad, OIC was not willing to call a meeting of the CFM for Kashmir,” he said, adding that Pakistan wanted to put diplomatic pressure on India after August 5, 2019, constitutional amendments, and the OIC’s voice for Kashmir would have acted as a force multiplier.

Analysts believe Saudi Arabia was not happy with Pakistan’s relations with Turkey, Qatar and Malaysia – three key states which played a major role in the KL summit in December last year – and decided to withdraw its financial support.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin watch the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia on June 14, 2018. Photo: AFP/Alexey Druzinin/Sputnik

The Saudis had demanded a refund of $1 billion from a $3 billion loan secured by the country last year to build up cash reserves and avoid default on foreign loans. 

The Saudis also held back the renewal of $3.2 billion worth of annual oil and gas supply on deferred payments, which expired in July this year. This infuriated Pakistani authorities and they took a step that had no parallel in the past.

Just as Pakistan’s foreign minister was making his diatribe against the OIC, Pakistan’s all-weather friend China quickly made $1 billion available in loans to help Islamabad pay back its obligations without suffering a financial crunch.

Pakistan’s recent move to go against the wishes of Riyadh may not be an isolated, discrete and transient move stemming from the uncontrolled anger over Indian atrocities in Kashmir. 

The concept of forming a pan-Islamic diplomatic body to replace the presently dysfunctional OIC has been pushed by Ankara, Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur and Doha since September 2019.

The Jerusalem Post reported on May 27 that a new Islamic bloc was in the offing as Pakistan was getting closer to Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Iran to shape a new power nexus in the region.

The newspaper revealed that Turkish, Pakistani and Malaysian leadership met in late September 2019 in New York and announced they would put in place an English-language TV network to take on the “Islamophobia” in the West.

Mahathir then sought to convene a summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 2019 to “reclaim the Muslim World’s fame and glory to rebuilt the great Muslim civilization.”

However, Pakistan People’s Party’s Senator and former Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan Mian Raza Rabbani claimed the present set-up was not capable of taking any major initiative that would alter the equation at the moment. 

“Mahathir is no longer a part of the game. How far the new Malaysian government will be willing to take Mahathir’s initiative is something that we will have to see. Pakistan made a lot of rhetorical noises in going along with this initiative, but when it comes to the practical steps we always tend to shy away because our foreign policy approach is timid,” Rabbani said.

Referring to the assertions of the foreign minister, he believed it may have been an inadvertent statement, but it does not indicate a policy shift in Pakistan’s approach.

“The inability of Pakistan to effectively mobilize international opinion and in particular of the Muslim states against India on the Kashmir issue may be the reason for the government’s frustration. Pakistan’s foreign policy would continue the way it was,” he added.