On the first anniversary of revocation of Article 370 by India, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi took Saudi Arabia to task in a TV interview for not obliging Pakistan over the issue of ‘organising’ a meeting of the Council of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Foreign Ministers (CFM) on Kashmir in early February 2020.
Qureshi had stated in his interview with a TV channel that unless the OIC convened CFM meeting on Kashmir, Pakistan would be “compelled to convene a meeting of Islamic countries that are ready to stand with it on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiri Muslims”.
He allowed himself to be swayed by emotions to cross the line, when he said “Today Pakistanis, who are always ready to sacrifice their lives for Mecca and Madina, need Saudi Arabia to play a leading role on the Kashmir issue. If they are not willing play that role, then I will ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia was not the only country Qureshi was upset with. He also expressed his consternation with United Arab Emirates (UAE) for not having supported Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.
Pakistan’s expression of dismay is significant. Last year, Pakistan had skipped the Kuala Lumpur Summit of Islamic countries, which was attended among others by the Emir of Qatar, Turkish President Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Turkey was the first to note that Pakistan had done it under Saudi pressure. Turkish official media reported that the Saudis had threatened Pakistan to send back 4 million Pakistani workers and replace them with Bangladeshis! However, officially, Pakistan had stated that it would take time to address the “concerns of major Muslim countries regarding possible division in the Ummah”, and it would continue to work for “unity of the Ummah”.
It was an irony that once claiming itself as the upholder of “unity”, Pakistan is now threatening to divide the Ummah on the issue of Kashmir! It betrays a sense of frustration and desperation on Islamabad’s part at not being able to muster critical international support for its agenda. What must have further irked Pakistan, perhaps, was the Saudi decision to quietly stop supply of oil on deferred payment basis since May 2020.
Saudi Arabia had come to Pakistan’s rescue in 2018 when it had agreed to provide $3.2 billion worth of oil on deferred payments per annum as part of its $ 6.2 billion package to help Pakistan tide over its balance of payment crisis. The balance $ 3 billion was delivered as cash-loan. Saudis had activated the deferred payment facility for three years from 1 July 2019, and the agreement signed in May had come up for renewal this year. However, the Saudis, visibly upset at Pakistan’s behaviour, have possibly discontinued the arrangement. Among other things, Pakistan’s tilt towards Turkey, Malaysia and Iran, as also its growing economic and strategic dependence on China might have annoyed the Saudis.
Saudi retribution has followed Qureshi’s bluster. Pakistan was reportedly asked to pay back the loan and as per reports Pakistan has already paid $ 1 billion by borrowing from China at a lower rate of interest. Pakistan was reportedly paying 3.2% interest on the loan and it has now arranged $1 billion loan from State Administration Foreign Exchange (SAFE) of China at London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) plus 1%, which at current rates comes to around 1.18%. Pakistan may have to arrange similar easy loans to pay up the rest $ 2 billion to Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan’s other benefactor, UAE, has also gone back on its promise to help Pakistan financially. In December 2018, taking the cue from Saudi Arabia, it had announced a $ 6.2 billion package for Pakistan which included $ 3.2 billion oil facility. However, later, it reduced its financial assistance to $ 2 billion and the deferred payments plan was abandoned.
Pakistan’s disillusionment with the Arab countries looks complete as commentators in the Pakistani media go on urging leaders of Islamic countries to support Pakistan. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s support from the Arab world has waned. Nevertheless, the loss of the Saudi crutch is certain to add to Pakistan’s fiscal worries in the coming days.
Script:Dr. Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow and Coordinator, South Asia Centre MP-IDSA.