Saudi Arabia woos Pakistan with $1.5 billion grant. Why now?

As US president Barack Obama looks to mend ties with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh today, the Saudis hope to shore up regional support. Their $1.5 billion gift has raised suspicions among Pakistanis. 

Anjum Naveed/AP/File
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (l.) speaks as Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's special adviser on national security and foreign affairs, looks on during a joint press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 7, 2014. Pakistan announced last week that it received a $1.5 billion grant from Saudi Arabia, raising suspicions among Pakistanis.

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Pakistan announced last week that it received a $1.5 billion grant from Saudi Arabia, which it termed a “friendly gift” and an “unconditional grant.”

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have long had warm ties, but the no-strings-attached gift sparked immediate concern from Pakistani journalists, security experts, and opposition politicians, who question whether the grant is part of a behind-the-scenes deal for Pakistan to provide weapons for Syrian rebels.

“There are no free lunches in foreign diplomacy,” says Baqir Sajjad, a journalist at Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, which has published articles questioning the deal.  

The grant was confirmed at a briefing by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s advisor on national security and foreign affairs, who also said that Saudi Arabia had agreed to purchase weapons from Pakistan. 

The Pakistan government declined to specify what kind of weapons the Kingdom was looking for and denied that any arms purchased by Saudi Arabia will be sent to Syria. Pakistan, which has the sixth-largest army in the world, is known as a major arms importer, but it also sells fighter jets, anti-tank missiles, armored personal carriers, and small arms to Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Malaysia.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense expert based in Islamabad, says that Saudi Arabia – who is desperate to counter arch-rival Iran’s support for the Syrian regime and has publicly called for arming Syrian rebels – may want to buy weapons from Pakistan rather than other countries because Pakistan cannot enforce an agreement about where the arms end up.

“If the arms bought from the West were supplied to Syrian rebels and the sellers like the United States or other such countries found out, they would be able impose sanctions on the Saudis,” she says. “But Pakistan has no such leverage over the Saudis if they violate the agreement” because the government is cash-strapped and worried that US foreign aid will diminish once American troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

The disclosure of the grant and weapons agreement follows a series of high-level talks between Pakistan and Saudi Arabian officials over the past three months and Pakistan's break last month from its neutral stance on the Syrian civil war. It said for the first time that the Assad regime should step down. 

There is no proof that Pakistan’s decisions are the direct result of Saudi Arabia’s actions – or that its arms will reach Syria. Even if they did, “there are so many arms coming from so many different places,” says Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington in an e-mail. “Unless the level of Pakistani arms shipments reaches some sort of critical mass, I don’t see them being any kind of game-changer for the conflict.” 

The consequences of Pakistani arms sent to Syria “could be destabilizing for sure,” Mr. Kugelman says, though more so for Pakistan than for the Middle East. The risk is that “Pakistan's already-raging sectarian violence would worsen. And its battlefield role in the ongoing Iran-Saudi Arabia sectarian proxy war would grow ever more strong,” he says.

At home, Pakistan is struggling with its Sunni-Shiite violence and ongoing strife from the Pakistan Taliban’s insurgency. There were 687 sectarian killings in Pakistan last year, an increase of 22 percent from 2012, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. Violence between Sunni Muslims (about 75 percent of the population) and Shiites (15 to 20 percent) has never reached massive levels, but there’s concern that it’s on the rise. 

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