On September 19, Saudi King Salman hosted Prime Minister Imran Khan on his maiden foreign visit since coming to the power. During the visit, Pakistani premier also met Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) and Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih. This visit has proved to be a breath of fresh air in the bilateral relationship which was going through a cold period since 2015, when Pakistan opted to take a neutral stance on the Yemen war.
This is the first time that the government of Pakistan has constructively engaged Saudi Arabia in a long-term commercial activity. The visit has opened a series of high-level bilateral exchanges. Saudi finance minister and energy minister are soon to be expected in Pakistan to finalize the details of Saudi investments. The country has also institutionalized the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia. In this regard, a high-level consultative committee has been set up between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which will usher in a new era of bilateral strategic partnership in diverse fields.
According to Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry, Saudi Arabia is the only country that has been invited by Pakistan to invest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). There are reports that Pakistan has desired to acquire a US$15 billion agreement of Saudi investments in various sectors related to the CPEC. However, Saudi Arabia agreed on a US$10 billion long-term investment. Under this agreement, Saudi Arabia will build an oil city in Gwadar. The 80,000-acres mega oil city in Gwadar will be used to transport oil from the Gulf region to China through the Gwadar Port. Moreover, Saudi Arabia will also invest in the energy sector in Pakistan.
India’s wide-ranging cooperation with Saudi Arabia in various fields and Modi’s proactive diplomacy in the backdrop of Pakistan’s rejection to the Saudi offer to join the Yemen War, proved to be detrimental to the bilateral relationship between the two Muslim majority states
During the PML-N government, the bilateral relationship was at its lowest ebb due to various reasons. Since 2015, Pakistan has tried to develop its image as a mediator in the Middle East conflicts, which was unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has not only remained neutral in Yemen War but also adopted nonaligned approach in Qatar’s diplomatic crisis of 2017. The country’s support to Iran’s nuclear deal with P5+1 further added irritants to Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations. Additionally, India’s wide-ranging cooperation with Saudi Arabia in various fields and Modi’s proactive diplomacy in the backdrop of Pakistan’s rejection to Saudi offer to join Yemen War proved to be detrimental to bilateral relationship. Indeed, this was the reason that Saudi government didn’t say single word in favour of Nawaz Sharif amid his disqualification and subsequent arrest.
These all irritants in the bilateral relationship severely dented Pakistan politically and economically during the last three years.
According to Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, the visit has given an impression that Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia as its preferred country and ally. It has laid a solid foundation of long term Saudi investments in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s acceptance to become a strategic partner on CPEC, on Pakistan’s invitation, has changed the conventional bilateral relationship, which was based on security, aid and limited investments in agriculture sectors
Firstly, Pakistan lost Saudi Arabia’s active political support at international forums such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), where it abstained in a crucial voting over Pakistan’s inclusion in the FATF grey list. Secondly, for the last few years Saudi Arabia’s foreign direct investment (FDI) has decreased up to 20 percent in the country. Thirdly, Pakistan’s number of manpower has become stagnant in Saudi Arabia, while numbers of labour from other countries mainly India and Bangladesh are increasing rapidly. Fourthly, Saudi Arabia has not actively supported Pakistan on Kashmir dispute since 2015, rather it has confined its support to a periodic and naïve statement issued under the Contact Group of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
PM Imran Khan’s visit has addressed multiple concerns of both the countries related to each other, particularly concerns of the royal family about Pakistan’s determination to protect the Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. According to ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, the visit has given impression that Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia as its preferred country and an ally. It has also laid a solid foundation of long-term investments by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan. It is hoped that the current government would continue to work on strengthening and broadening this bilateral strategic cooperation.
The writer is PhD Scholar and Researcher at IPRI
Published in Daily Times, October 8th 2018.