ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Growing Influence of the West Asian States on Pakistan

The nature and extent of political involvement and influence of the Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates governments in Pakistan seem far more direct and intrusive than ever before. There is no single explanation for this and there can be many possible answers. The west Asian advice to Pakistan is no different from that of the US, so are the Saudi and UAE governments speaking on behalf of the Americans?


Growing Influence of the West Asian States on Pakistan

S Akbar Zaidi

the chief justice of Pakistan was revived and gaining momentum. After having been dismissed from the provincial government, the PML(N) actively joined the lawyers’ movement creating a huge political crisis in Pakistan, and there were fears that this street protest could topple the democrati-

The nature and extent of political involvement and influence of the Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates governments in Pakistan seem far more direct and intrusive than ever before. There is no single explanation for this and there can be many possible answers. The west Asian advice to Pakistan is no different from that of the US, so are the Saudi and UAE governments speaking on behalf of the Americans?

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi.

he front page of the influential English newspaper from Karachi, Dawn, on 6 May 2009, carried a report, similar to many such reports now increasingly common in Pakistan’s newspapers over the last few years, stating that “Saudi Arabia’s role in evolving a consensus among the major players in Pakistani politics became more pronounced” when some of the top government and opposition leaders met at the ambassador’s house in Islamabad at a formal dinner. Such dinner meetings had been part of a string of efforts in which some senior members of the diplomatic corps and the royal households of many west Asian states demonstrated considerable influence over political developments in Pakistan. At this dinner in Islamabad, the Saudi ambassador is reported to have said that he wanted to use the event “to formalise his efforts of the last few months to bring some of the major political forces close to each other”. Importantly, the report stated, he “made it abundantly clear that whatever he had been doing was with the blessings of the King of Saudi Arabia”.

Manipulating Domestic Politics

A small sample of the news about such meetings demonstrates the nature of this growing influence. During the month-long political stand-off in February and March this year, between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)

– PML(N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, such activity was particularly noticeable. The two largest political parties were locked in active opposition to each other after the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, also of the PPP, dismissed the provincial Punjab government of the PMLN. The Punjab government was dismissed at a time when the two-year old lawyers’ movement for the restoration of

august 29, 2009

cally elected PPP government and, perhaps, also undermine the nascent democratic process in Pakistan. It was at this moment that the influence of west Asian governments over the political process in Pakistan became particularly noticeable.

On 25 February after the Punjab government had been dismissed, the Business Recorder posted a story, similar versions of which appeared in a Urdu newspapers as well, that Nawaz Sharif and his brother, the dismissed chief minister of the Punjab, received a “VIP guest” from Jeddah, whose identity was not disclosed and who came under “tight security arrangements”. The guest was said to have met the two leaders in order to play a mediatory and reconciliatory role between the leaders of the PPP and the PML(N) “to get the country out of [the] crises and solve its dangerous political problems”. The newspaper reported that this guest had intervened earlier “several times”. The report also made revelations of a trip by the Saudi intelligence chief, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz who carried a personal letter from the Saudi monarch, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, came and met Prime Minister Gilani and President Zardari in January urging the two leaders to resolve all “internal issues through mutual dialogue”. Media reports stated that Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz “stressed the need for stability and peace in Pakistan, equating this with Saudi Arabia’s own peace and stability”.

On 5 March, Jang, Pakistan’s largest Urdu newspaper reported, that an emissary from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who was close to both Nawaz Sharif and Zardari, came to Islamabad “in his private” jet, and had a long meeting with President Zardari alone, on his own. The newspaper reported that the “friend from the UAE” tried to convince Zardari to stop this confrontational politics and proposed a new political arrangement under which Nawaz Sharif would be made prime minister under Zardari. The newspaper also reported that if President Zardari

vol xliv no 35

Economic & Political Weekly


did not agree to this proposal, he would be “asked to go back to Dubai”, where he lived for many years in exile with his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and “retire”. Eventually, such differences were resolved, according to one newspaper when “late night calls to Zardari made the difference”.

Have the rulers of Dubai and Saudi Arabia replaced the more traditional and historical manipulators of domestic politics in Pakistan, primarily the United States (US) and to a lesser extent, Britain, or are they acting on behalf of and in tandem with Washington and London?

Bonding with Arab World

Pakistan’s relationship with the Arab states was cemented following the head of Islamic states conference held in Lahore in 1973 when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was in power, and when slogans of antiimperialism (of sorts) were raised and the earlier political manifestations of Muammar Qaddafi and Yasir Arafat were cheered as heroes of the Pakistani people. More importantly, it was the oil price rise of the 1970s which caused a huge financial boom in west Asia, from which Pakistan – its labour and its state – profited immensely. This relationship with labour for the remittances they send became the most important relationship between Pakistan and west Asia, and still continues to be crucial to Pakistan’s economic existence. Over the years, financial assistance and cheap or free oil, have also been an equally important lifeline to Pakistan’s economy.

The second plank of a strengthening of this relationship came when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s successor President Zia ul Haq, began to re-Islamise and reorient Pakistan’s politics and its society, in many important ways, de-anchoring Pakistan from the Indian subcontinent or south Asia, and replanting Pakistan squarely in the Islamic west Asia. This phase of Pakistan’s existence (1977-88) marks a sharp increase in the process of Islamisation, and as a result the Islamic jihad and resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s relationship and dependence on the west Asian states grew immensely.

This growing Islamisation and hence, closeness, with Wahabi Islam and Saudi money, led to the huge mushrooming of madrasas, and of political Islam in Pakistan.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 29, 2009

The influence of Saudi money (as well as

Iran’s for shia seminaries) has been well

documented and is one of the causes of

the extent of the rise of Islamic fundamen

talism, jihadi-ism and armed militancy in

Pakistan today. As Pakistan became the

front line (Islamic) state defending Islam

on its borders against the communists, the

nature of the relationship between Saudi

Arabia and Pakistan was fortified, with

one country providing arms and money,

and the other manpower.

Pakistan continues to be critically

dependent on trade with the countries of

west Asia. It exports little to either Saudi

Arabia or Kuwait, but the imports from

both countries – almost exclusively oil –

form a large proportion of Pakistan’s total

imports. In 2007-08, as much of 13% of

Pakistan’s imports came from Saudi Arabia,

9% from UAE, and 7% from Kuwait. These

three countries are amongst Pakistan’s

top-five trading partners. In terms of

remittances into Pakistan, Saudi Arabia,

the UAE, other Gulf Cooperation Council

(GCC) states and Kuwait together contri

buted 55% of the $7.5 billion sent in

2008-09. Remittances contribute far more

foreign exchange to Pakistan’s economy,

than does foreign direct investment (FDI).

While clearly the US is the single most

important economic, political and mili

tary partner of Pakistan, the west Asian

states also make significant economic con

tributions. In terms of remittances, the

limited but growing FDI from the Emirates

– largely on account of the recent increased oil money, which may have slowed down after the global financial crisis – and particularly in terms of providing oil at concessionary rates, it is clear that the contribution from the west Asian states is critical to Pakistan’s economic well-being.

New Found Concern

The more traditional and historical relations between the west Asian states and Pakistan have been based on remittances from the former to the latter, oil concessions, support for madrasas and jihadis, and prior to 9 September 2001, apparently little direct political involvement of the nature and extent one sees today. How and why has this changed? Is the concern shown by the Saudis and Emirate rulers for Pakistan’s government and the threat

vol xliv no 35

of militant Talibanisation, their own concern – as they claim – or are they, having closer and “brotherly” ties and access to Pakistan’s main political leaders, acting on behalf of the Americans? Clearly, there is no single explanation and there are many answers. The only thing that is certain is that the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have never had so much interest or clout in the running of affairs at a day to day level in Pakistan than they do currently.

The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have played many a part in the political process in Pakistan in the past, but the new post-11 September 2001 role seems far more intrusive than ever before. In much of the domestic political turmoil that took place in Pakistan since early 2007, the Saudi and Emirates’ envoys and officials were saying exactly what the US officials were articulating. There seems to be little divergence in their concerns or opinions from the Americans, and all three have been concerned about developments in Pakistan. This of course does not necessarily imply that the Saudis or the UAE are mere stooges or proxies for the Americans, trying to save Pakistan from political implosion, but it does at least allow for that possibility. Perhaps there is also a genuine fear that if Pakistan collapses, then there will also be less stability in Saudi Arabia, as Prince Muqrin suggested. Perhaps US pressure and the situation after 11 September 2001 has caused a new set of concerns with recent geopolitical understandings in the region determining this new found concern.

However, it is also worth pointing out that when President Asif Zardari went with his begging bowl to the Saudis in late 2008, they brushed him aside and did not offer their legendary charity. Zardari, according to newspaper reports, was “annoyed” over the response he had received when he asked for a “multibillion dollar aid package”. Yet, despite his annoyance, eventually Zardari did have to listen to the suggestions coming from the Gulf on reconciliation in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Clearly, the Arab states did not have to buy their patronage or leverage or influence over the annoyed president. Or, perhaps, the Arabs were just chanting the American song. Whatever it is, it is clear that the west Asian states do have tremendous influence over the Pakistani political, as well as military, leadership.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top