“Unfounded, baseless and untrue,” said Pakistan’s foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry earlier this month, when asked whether his nation was considering the sale of nuclear arms to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this spring, Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif reiterated Pakistan’s “pledge to protect Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity” in response to a request for military assistance against the House of Saud’s Houthi foes next door. But within days, Pakistan’s parliament voted unanimously not only against sending troops to Yemen, but also against even taking sides in the conflict. Despite decades of lavish funding to Pakistan, the Saudis might wonder what they are getting for their riyals. And Pakistanis, with all the problems they face in their own neighborhood, might be amazed that anyone would expect them to plunge into the treacherous miasma of the Middle East. What to make of the warm-but-not-too-warm friendship between the wealthiest state in the Sunni Muslim world, and its most heavily armed one?
This question is an important one for a simple reason: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are each other’s wild cards. Each is the other’s out-of-region game-changer, a factor that must play into the calculations of all other players in the Middle East and South Asia alike. Think you’ve got the complex equation sorted out of Arabs vs. Persians, Sunnis vs. Shi’a, Ba’athists vs. Islamists? Well, if Pakistan decides to throw its weight around the Middle East, you’ll have to re-tabulate your odds. Think you understand the delicate balance between New Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul, and Beijing? Well, Riyadh has long been staking one particular player at this table, and whether it chooses to double down or fold on its investment will affect everyone else’s bets. To understand the strategies of both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, one must understand what underlies their durable but lopsided relationship.