Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal addresses a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad on Jan. 7, two weeks ahead of a visit by Prince Salman Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — The recent visit of the Saudi Arabian deputy defense minister to Pakistan included discussions of improving defense and security ties, although what direction that would take is unclear, analysts said.
Also an issue: whether there will be any linkage with Saudi Arabia’s standoff with Iran and its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Prince Salman Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud visited Islamabad last week, where he met Federal Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif, chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Rashad Mahmood.
During the meeting between Sharif and Salman, a press release by the military stated, “matters of mutual interest, regional security and enhanced bilateral defence collaboration, including [a] training exchange program, were discussed.”
This was followed by delegation-level bilateral talks.
It is hoped that establishment of military cooperation committees will boost defense cooperation.
But thus far there is no specific role for these committees, and analysts are uncertain what shape improved relations might take.
“There is not much more can be done to expand current levels of military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,” said Brian Cloughley, former Australian defense attache to Islamabad.
Similarly, analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan military consortium think tank said there is already a good degree of cooperation.
“All three military branches have training and exercises with the Saudis,” he said, and also highlighted that Pakistan already trains many Saudi military officers.
“Usually, Saudi cadets come to Risalpur for Air Force, Pakistan Military Academy for Army, and Manora for naval training. Some of the Saudis attend regular staff and war studies courses.”
Another potential area is submarine training, he said.
“The Saudis are planning to buy submarines and it would be OK to say they’ll send their officers and sailors to Pakistan for training,” he said.
Pakistan is already reportedly training Burma’s first submariners as that country prepares to induct submarines, and Pakistan helped train the first generation of Saudi naval officers and sailors.
The chances of helping the Saudis establish a submarine arm are therefore high.
Cloughley said that Pakistan may be looking for other benefits from increased defense cooperation.
“What Pakistan really wants is for the Saudis to buy military equipment,” he said, “but the chances of that seem to be slim, as the Saudis are already locked into Western suppliers.
“It’s not impossible, of course, and there might be some arrangement about ammunition, for example, but it is unlikely to amount to very much in cash terms,” he added.
So far, Khan said, Pakistan’s efforts to sell defense equipment to the Saudis have been largely frustrated.
“[Pakistan Aeronautical Complex] has sold Mushaq basic trainers to Saudi Arabia, and tried to sell the K-8 basic/intermediate jet and Al-Khalid MBT, but to no avail. I had previously thought the Saudis [were] hoping to buy the JF-17 to replace their F-5s, but they bought more F-15s, upgraded their Tornados, and now have bought Typhoon,” he said.
He does see a “possible sale of newer versions of the [Pakistan Ordnance Factories] G-3 battle rifle, along with mortars and other ammunition, and free-fall dumb bombs.”
The possible sale of small arms and ammunition — the staple of Pakistan’s defense exports so far — should be treated with some degree of caution, he said, as some Pakistani-produced 106mm recoilless rifles and RPG-7s sold to Saudi Arabia have resurfaced in Syria in the hands of the Free Syrian Army.
Still, Cloughley said the Saudis may have an additional motive for turning to Pakistan.
“Naturally, the Saudis are anxious to obtain and maintain Sunni support against Iran and for their efforts in Syria,” he said. “It is even possible that Pakistan could be asked to provide weapons for the Syrian rebels on behalf of Saudi. This would be a good way of achieving Saudi objectives in the Middle East while keeping Pakistan happy.
“Western nations would turn a blind eye to any such arrangement,” he said.
Training the Syrian rebels, as has been suggested in some quarters (such as Foreign Policy journal), is according to Cloughley out of the question for Pakistan however. ■