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Why Pakistan should not take Saudi money

This weekend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is visiting Pakistan with his entourage of over 1,000 people, including investors, government officials and security personnel. It is expected that the trip will result in investments in Pakistan worth up to $20bn.

According to Haroon Sharif, who chairs Pakistan’s Board of Investment, the Saudis will be investing mainly in the energy sector and opening up an oil refinery in the southwestern coastal city of Gwadar.

This comes less than four months after the Saudis announced a $6bn aid package following Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s October trip to to the country. Significantly, Khan chose to visit at a time when Prince Mohammed was embroiled in the fallout of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi‘s murder and the boycott by many Western investors of the Future Investment Initiative, a high-profile investment conference.

The Pakistani prime minister attended the conference and was duly rewarded for standing with Saudi Arabia. But even that billion-dollar aid package was not enough to end Pakistan’s debt crisis.

The Saudis are now promising another multi-billion investment, which may just bail out the country from the financial crisis it is in, but these funds are unlikely to be granted unconditionally.

Saudi Arabia has strategic interests in Pakistan given its proximity to Iran, Riyadh’s archrival in the region. The Saudis are using aid packages and investment promises to buy the economically embattled Pakistani government’s loyalty and convince it to turn a blind eye to their destructive actions within Pakistan’s borders.

Saudi financial promises are not a new feature of Pakistani-Saudi relations. For decades, Islamabad has kept close to Riyadh, encouraged by both Saudi money and the US regional policy.

This special relation emerged shortly after General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the left-leaning Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and sought closer ties with the US. Two major events dramatically increased the importance of Pakistan to the US foreign policy in the region: the Iranian Revolution of February 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan of December the same year. 

As the US sought to establish a united front of countries in West Asia willing to fight Iranian and Soviet influence, Islamabad became a key US and – by extension – Saudi ally. By then Riyadh was enjoying massive oil revenue (in part due to the spike in prices following the 1973 oil embargo) and was actively practising chequebook diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. 

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Saudi financial flows to Pakistan started with the US-approved scheme to arm and train fighters of anti-Soviet armed groups in Afghanistan. Riyadh and Islamabad also cooperated closely to curb expanding Iranian influence in the region which, they saw, sought to incite the Shia minorities in both the countries to rebel.

Saudi financial help to Pakistan assumed many forms, including military and civilian, but also religious. Zia-ul-Haq’s government allowed Saudi charities to fund seminaries and mosques, which inevitably came with more conservative interpretations of Islam and anti-Shia ideology. Riyadh has also been accused of supporting certain “extremist” Sunni groups.

Some of these seminaries and groups are alleged to be responsible for radicalising the local youth and turning many of them against Shia Muslims. Some of them have also carried out cross-border attacks in Iran. 

Only three days ago, an armed group called Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), which ,Iran believes, has direct links to Saudi Arabiaclaimed responsibility for a suicide bombing attack in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province which killed 27 members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Such groups also target Pakistani Shia Muslims, especially those living in Balochistan province bordering Iran. The province has seen a spike in sectarian killings in the last few years. Shia Muslims, who make up 15 to 20 percent of Pakistan’s population, are also under attack in other parts of the country. They are being kidnapped, killed and violently attacked even in large cities. Many Shia Muslims have been forced to  leave Pakistan  and take refuge abroad due to such threats.

While many see Saudi support for ultraconservative groups as empowering “extremism”, the Pakistani state itself is also to blame for the increasing persecution of Pakistani Shia Muslims. The Pakistani security agencies have repeatedly failed to protect the Shia Muslims, and have not taken any serious action against such anti-Shia groups. International human rights organisations say such lack of action points towards complicity by the state.

That Saudi Arabia is playing a subversive role with its financing of certain extremist groups is not an accusation that has been levelled only in Pakistan. Just this week, the European Commission added the country  (alongside Pakistan) to its blacklist of nations that pose a threat because of lax controls on “terror financing and money laundering”. 

Pakistan’s reliance on Saudi money to keep its failing economy afloat has kept Pakistani politician silent on the issues of problematic financing. Prime Minister Khan has previously admitted that the country cannot afford to turn down Saudi Arabia’s investment and aid offers because it is “desperate for money”. But what cost are we willing to pay for Saudi money?

While any economic investment is most welcome, Khan must tell Prince Mohammed that it cannot come at the price of its internal stability. It is time that Islamabad reconsiders its decades-old transactional relationship with Riyadh.

Pakistan cannot afford to be a battleground where Saudi Arabia and Iran settle their scores. It cannot be complicit in the rise of anti-Shia violence or destabilisation of neighbouring countries any longer. 

What Pakistan needs even more than money is religious harmony and stability. If the Pakistani government does not put an end to Saudi Arabia’s harmful actions within its borders, peace in the country and in the region will be at great risk. And no aid package is worth that. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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