Backed by the kingdom's oil wealth, the crown prince is pushing once-close allies to follow Riyadh’s lead.

If you want to see Saudi Arabia’s external reach, take a drive down M A Jinnah road, which cuts through the commercial heart of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. 

Whenever sectarian tensions are high between Shia and Sunni Muslims, profane graffiti appears on the walls of the schools and shopping malls located along the busy thoroughfare. 

Insults sprayed against the Sauds, the rulers of the kingdom, on one day will be whitewashed and painted upon with condemnation of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei the next. 

Saudi Arabia’s defenders on Karachi streets come from the religious schools, which Riyadh has funded over the years. 

But the extent of its influence over Pakistan’s foreign policy came under the spotlight this month and raised questions about how the oil-rich Arab state can twist the arms of friendly nations.

Islamabad faced the embarrassment of canceling participation in a meeting of Muslim leaders in Malaysia. The December 18-21 Kuala Lumpur summit was seen as a challenge to Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who along with his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad enthusiastically promoted the event, backed out at the last minute shortly after he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). 

“Your foreign policy can not be independent when your reliance on financial assistance from one place is so much,” said Dr Shaista Tabassum, a Karachi-based international relations expert. 

“Pakistan’s economy is in a serious crisis right now. There’s little it could have done in the situation.” 

Khan’s government received a $6bn bailout from Riyadh months after it came to power last year. 

For Islamabad, the consequence of upsetting the Saudis could have been severe.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a key backer of the Kuala Lumpur initiative, says Riyadh threatened to deport millions of Pakistani workers to deter Khan. 

This wouldn’t be the first time Saudi rulers have used their petro-dollars to force other countries to toe its line in international affairs. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani were among the leaders who participated in the Kuala Lumpur Summit.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani were among the leaders who participated in the Kuala Lumpur Summit. (AP)

Tabassum says with MBS at the helm, Saudi Arabia is aggressively trying to position itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. 

Difficult choices 

After Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed an economic and diplomatic blockade on their erstwhile Gulf ally, Qatar, they expected other Muslim nations to follow suit. 

When Somalia initially declared its neutrality on the issue, Saudi Arabia reportedly offered it $80m. As Mogadishu persisted in following its own foreign course, Riyadh unilaterally recognised passports from Somaliland, a region which wants independence from Somalia. 

The surge in oil prices between 2004 and 2014 topped up Saudi financial firepower, which it used to further its global influence. This is evident from the $33bn that Riyadh spent as humanitarian aid in 78 countries in the past decade. 

Some of the largest recipients of this aid  — Niger and Mauritania — were quick to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar despite having no bilateral differences. 

Across the Red Sea in Sudan, Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for backing the military generals who are accused of forcibly trying to put down a popular uprising this year.

Senior Sudanese military leaders received official reception in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as dozens of people were killed on the streets of Darfur. 

The two Arab allies have pledged $3bn to Sudan’s military, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the unpopular war in Yemen. 

Like Pakistan, Jordan is another Muslim country that has to withstand Saudi pressure when it tried to pursue an independent foreign policy. 

Struggling to cope with Syrian refugees, high unemployment and recurring budget deficits, Amman has received billions of dollars in aid and credit from Riyadh. 

Around 650,000 Jordanian expats work in Saudi Arabia and send home crucial foreign exchange in shape of remittances. 

Since the rise of MBS, Saudi money has come with strings attached. 

Jordan says it’s economic problems increased after its policy deviated from the Saudis on the issue of Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and the Palestinian state. 

In some cases, politicians are to be blamed for the oversized role Saudi rulers have come to play in their countries.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, now under investigation in a multi-million dollar scandal, has worked to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia. When he was questioned about the source of around $700m that had mysteriously landed in his account, he insisted it was a donation from Saudi Arabia. 

“Why did Najib embrace Saudi Arabia? Simply because the Saudi doctrine allows him to stay in power even though he is corrupt. This kind of doctrine only legitimises the despotic leaders to control the Muslim citizen,” said Ahmad Farouk Musa, who heads the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Renaissance Front think tank. 

Source: TRT World