Saudi Arabia joined Turkey and China in a move to block a U.S.-led attempt this week to place Pakistan on an international terror-financing watch list, according to officials involved in the process, in a rare disagreement between Riyadh and the Trump administration.
Saudi Arabia’s move on behalf of Pakistan came just days after Islamabad said it would send more than 1,000 troops to the Gulf kingdom, which has expanded its military posture in the region since its 2015 intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
A U.S. effort to reverse the decision on the watch list was under way Wednesday at a meeting in Paris of the Financial Action Task Force, a secretive international body that monitors countries’ efforts to fight terror financing and money-laundering, according to the officials involved in the process.
The officials said the U.S. effort, which included pressure on the Saudis, raised the possibility of a fresh vote on action against Pakistan as soon as Thursday. The Pakistanis were scrambling to shore up support.
The Trump administration, angry with what it sees as inadequate efforts by Islamabad to combat terror groups, has sought to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan. Last month it said it was withholding $2 billion in security aid until it sees much stronger action against militants. U.S. officials also accuse Pakistan’s military of supporting some jihadist groups as proxies against neighboring India and Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies those accusations and says there are no terrorist sanctuaries within its territory.
Saudi Arabia is a close U.S. ally, with its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, forming a personal bond with the family of President Donald Trump. It was Saudi Arabia’s surprise backing that secured the necessary opposing votes to block the U.S.
If U.S. lobbying is successful and the task force does end up adding Pakistan to its list of countries deemed “high risk” for doing too little to curb terror financing, banks, other lenders and international companies seeking to do business with the South Asian country could rethink financial ties, putting a damper on its already struggling economy.
The U.S. was supported in its effort to put Pakistan on the watch list by the U.K., France, Germany and other countries. The proposal was initiated at a working group, which is responsible for making recommendations to the 35 member nations and two regional groups that make up the FATF plenary. The meeting continues through Friday.
Pakistan was supported by China and Turkey heading into the FATF working-group meeting earlier this week. Turkey and the U.S. are allies as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, though they are at odds with one another over actions in Syria.
The Trump administration has sought to work with Beijing to constrain North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.
Pakistan had lobbied FATF member countries to keep it off the watch list. It also took last-minute action against Pakistan-based militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, complying with 10-year-old United Nations sanctions against the group, which the international community holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people.
“Our efforts paid,” said Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif on Twitter. “No consensus for nominating Pakistan,” he said, adding, “Grateful to friends who helped.”
Whether Saudi Arabia sticks by Pakistan now is key, with the issue likely to come before the full FATF membership at the plenary meeting.
“We’re anticipating that the final decision would be made on Thursday of this week,” said Heather Nauert, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, reiterating that Pakistan was among countries that aren’t doing enough “to crack down on terror financing, counterterrorism and the like.”
Riyadh, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, was acting on behalf of the entire Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi-dominated bloc of six Persian Gulf nations which are collectively a member of the FATF, said officials from the countries on the task force.
A State Department official said Pakistan’s efforts appeared deficient. “We look forward to additional information on how Pakistan is meeting these obligations,” the official said. Even if the U.S. fails to get Pakistan on the terror watch list this week, Washington can request that the task force revisit the list at its next meeting in June.
Pakistan says it has seized some 200 properties of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. However, the group’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, remains at liberty and was able to give a speech in Lahore on Friday—arresting him doesn’t come under Pakistan’s obligations to the U.N., Pakistani officials said.
While the U.S. long has had strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan also has deep ties to the kingdom. Last week, Pakistan said it would send soldiers to Saudi Arabia on what it described as a training and advisory mission. Pakistan Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir-Khan told The Wall Street Journal that between 1,000 and 1,600 soldiers would be sent. That could double the existing contingent of 1,600 Pakistani soldiers there to train Saudis.
Pakistan didn’t tie the deployment to Saudi support on the watch list question and it wasn’t clear whether the two moves were linked. Mr. Dastgir-Khan said the proposed listing of Pakistan at the FATF was an attempt to introduce politics into what was a technical organization.
“This does seem unduly punitive and intrusive,” Mr. Dastgir-Khan said, pointing to Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations in recent years. “There is no logical reason for the FATF nomination.”
He said that the Pakistani soldiers would be “spread quite widely around the kingdom” under an agreement with the Saudis dating back to the 1980s.
“The Saudis now have enhanced training needs,” Mr. Dastgir-Khan said. “Pakistan is acting to bolster the capacity of the Saudis.”
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, has made multiple visits to Saudi Arabia in recent months—including a meeting earlier this month with Prince Mohammad, according to a report from the official Radio Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia sent a $1.5 billion “gift” to Pakistan in 2014. Pakistan relies on overseas workers who send money home to prop up its economy and anemic foreign-exchange reserves. The 1.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia provide the biggest chunk of those remittances—$5.5 billion last year, according to official Pakistani figures.