Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman ride in a carriage during a welcome ceremony in Islamabad in February 2019. Photo: Bandar al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace / AFP

The foreign policy of every country is based on the profit-and-loss principle. Nations devise foreign policies according to their own financial and geo-strategic interests, and this rule defines the relations between states. Everything else, such as theological beliefs, is irrelevant in international relations.

The recent diplomatic spat between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia provides a glimpse of how mixing religious beliefs and historic relations can prove costly for nations that are either incapable of devising a balanced foreign policy or are dependent on global powers, and instead of having a free and dynamic foreign policy prefers to be dictated.

Generation after generation in Pakistan have been taught that Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Muslim ummah and that the two countries not only share historic relations but as brotherly Muslim countries they are lifelines for each other. However, the Saudi monarchs, who have always been in the US bloc and served the geopolitical interests of Washington, in reality never gave Pakistan any importance unless its support was needed to wage proxy battles.

After New Delhi annexed Kashmir, the response of the Saudi monarchs was very clear and simple, that Riyadh would not highlight the Kashmir issue, as India and Saudi Arabia have mutual business interests. In contrast, Pakistan’s policy of fighting proxy wars for Washington and Riyadh has left it economically vulnerable, and nations with weak economies can never have balanced relations with the global players, as beggars can’t be choosers.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s statement on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation was a warning to Riyadh that if it does not call a meeting of the OIC on the Kashmir issue, Pakistan will either convene a meeting itself or try to garner the support of other Muslim countries.

In Pakistan, no foreign minister can issue such a statement against Saudi Arabia unless he is backed by the military establishment, so it was a clear message that Pakistan will look toward Turkey and Malaysia for much-needed support on the Kashmir issue.

Riyadh in response not only has withdrawn the facility of providing oil to Pakistan on deferred payments but after asking for the return of US$1 billion immediately, which Pakistan arranged by way of another loan from Beijing, the Saudi monarchs demanded $1 billion more to be returned to them.

Pakistan, whose economy normally survives on loans from friendly countries and bailout packages from the International Monetary Fund, is finding itself in hot water. The Saudi monarchs for sure have the silent backing of Washington, and that is the reason they are pressing Pakistan to get out from under the influence of Beijing, forget the Kashmir issue and keep working as the proxy for Riyadh’s and Washington’s geopolitical interests.

Those who know that in Pakistan it is the military establishment, not the elected leadership, that devises foreign policy can easily tell that the establishment’s stakes are with the US.

But Beijing giving full backing to Islamabad on the Kashmir issue by adopting an aggressive position in Ladakh and bailing Pakistan out with loan packages and through investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is right now the only option for the establishment to save face on the Kashmir fiasco and on the failure of its doctrine to manipulate the country’s political discourse.

For its part, Beijing after investing heavily in  Pakistan will be happy to see Islamabad getting out from under Washington’s influence. The same is the case with Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be happy to see Islamabad finally getting out from under the influence of Riyadh.

But the question arises: Has the establishment in Pakistan decided to ditch its old allies the US and Saudi Arabia, and is it willing to take the risk of upsetting both countries by jumping into the boat with China and Turkey?

After all, going against Washington or Riyadh is not that easy, especially in the case of Islamabad, which has relied on those governments for long, and especially when religious sentiments of the masses are attached to Riyadh.

The clerics and different religious political parties have Saudi backing and Riyadh has been sponsoring many religious outfits and clerics in Pakistan for decades to protect its own interests in the name of religion.

Then there are millions of Pakistanis who are working in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, most of which are allies of Riyadh.

So the cost factor is high if Islamabad jumps into the boat of Beijing and ditches Riyadh and Washington.

Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa is set to visit Riyadh, and there are expectations in Pakistan that his visit will normalize matters with the Saudis. What Bajwa will achieve from his visit and how he will persuade the Saudi monarchs not to withdraw financial support from Islamabad remains to be seen, but this diplomatic rift with Riyadh has yet again proved that Islamabad always has the wrong foreign policy as its relations with the global players have always been based on serving their geopolitical interests.

New Delhi’s annexation of Kashmir and human-rights violations in that area are ignored by almost all the major global players because India has a consumer market to offer to the economic powers. While it is true that like Pakistan it has wasted its resources on unnecessary defense expenses, it has otherwise played its cards smartly. During the Cold War it aligned with Russia, and in the new world after the terrorist attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, it jumped into Washington’s boat.

India has also successfully created its own entrepreneurs and it has never solely depended on aid from a friendly country or financial institutions. So it’s time for Islamabad to realize how important it is to create entrepreneurs and a business-friendly economy instead of one where most of the fiscal budge it allotted to defense, and where religious interpretations and national interests keep changing according to the requirements of Washington and Riyadh.

Beijing also is not offering any free lunch as it has its own geopolitical goals associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.

The policymakers in Islamabad need to devise a foreign policy based on Pakistan’s own interests, and wake up to the real world in which every single Arab or Muslim country is fighting for its own interests, while Beijing and Washington have their own conflicts.

Likewise whether or not to recognize Israel is an issue for Pakistan to decide, as the Arab monarchs who politicize this matter for their own survival in their respective countries are gradually accepting Israel as an independent state. The UAE-Israeli peace deal is just one example in this regard.

Islamabad’s foreign policy needs to get rid of the theological mindset as it only creates division and extremism in society. In the modern world, it is not theology or the art of fighting proxy wars but what a country can offer to the global players as a potential market and as a sound economy that matters.

The Saudi monarchs’ influence cannot be eliminated immediately but Islamabad can at least try. The question is, is the power elite who have stakes mostly in the West or in the Arab countries ready to put these stakes at risk?

Will the opposition parties, instead of exploiting the diplomatic rift between Riyadh and Islamabad show some spine by convincing their vote bank that neither Riyadh nor Washington or for that matter Beijing or any other country offers a free lunch?

Islamabad has already paid a heavy cost in the form of becoming a proxy of these powers and weakening its own case and Kashmir’s case internationally. For now, contrary to the expectations of many, there will not be a drastic shift in its foreign policy and it will continue to try to ride the different boats at the same time.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.