Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia reiterates the importance – both economic and strategic – of the bilateral relationship in spite of the setbacks encountered in recent years.
In recent years, the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has undergone some strain. One of the key factors, according to many observers, is the increasing proximity of not just Saudi Arabia, but other GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to India. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in August 2020 criticised the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), which is chaired by Saudi Arabia, for not convening a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the organisation’s member states on the Kashmir issue.
While speaking on a tv show, the Pakistan Foreign Minister said:
I am once again respectfully telling OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. If you cannot convene it, then I’ll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.
Riyadh in turn expressed displeasure with Qureshi, by asking Pakistan to return US$1 billion ($1.3 billion) of a US$6.2 billion ($8 billion) package that it had loaned to Pakistan. When Islamabad faced a serious financial crisis in 2018, Saudi Arabia provided it with a loan of US$3 billion ($3.9 billion) and a further US$3.2 billion ($4.1 billion) oil credit facility. During his visit to Saudi Arabia, which took place days after Qureshi’s remarks, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa was denied a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) but got to meet Deputy Defence Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Salman, a brother of the Crown Prince, and Major Gen Fayyad Al Ruwaili.
It is pertinent to point out, that in 2019 Pakistan along with Iran and Turkey, had mooted setting up a television channel to counter Islamophobia. There was also talk of Malaysia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan setting up an organisation to replace the OIC. This was denied by Malaysia, which hosted a Summit of Islamic countries in December 2019. Pakistan PM Imran Khan backed out of the Summit, due to pressure from Saudi Arabia.
Changes in Saudi Foreign Policy
In recent months, there have been some very important developments which have affected Saudi Arabia’s stance on key foreign policy issues. The Biden Administration’s tone vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia is fundamentally different from that of the Trump Administration. While Trump shared a close rapport with MBS, Biden has released a report which clearly points to the involvement of the Saudi crown prince in the murder of the outspoken Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The US has also withdrawn its support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and put some of its defence deals with Saudi Arabia on hold. In such a situation, MBS needs to recalibrate Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. His conciliatory tone vis-à-vis Iran and attempts to mend ties with Qatar and Turkey are strong indications of that recalibration. Even regarding Pakistan, the crown prince would like to mend relations, so as to ensure Riyadh does not lose its clout with Islamabad.
Pakistan-Saudi Economic Relations
Imran Khan’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia (7-9 May), his third since taking over as Pakistan Prime Minister, placed a strong emphasis on putting the bilateral relationship between Riyadh and Islamabad back on track. Before Khan’s departure for Saudi Arabia, his Cabinet confirmed the establishment of a Saudi-Pakistani Supreme Co-ordination Council, which would boost economic relations and remove obstacles to investment deals that had been signed.
It would also be pertinent to point out that, just days before Khan’s visit, Pakistan Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, had visited Saudi Arabia and had met with the Crown Prince.
A joint statement released by both sides stated:
The two leaders reaffirmed the strong and historic bonds between the two countries rooted firmly in shared beliefs, common values, mutual trust and longstanding tradition of mutual support.
The Saudi Development Fund committed 500 million USD for areas like Infrastructure and water resources. Riyadh also announced Humanitarian Projects to the tune of 123 million USD. The 118 projects would cover areas like food security, health, education and water.
The South Asian Context
Apart from bilateral issues, the joint statement also made reference to the need for India and Pakistan to peacefully find a solution to disputes. That is important because, in recent years, Riyadh has sought to broker peace talks between India and Pakistan although, as discussed earlier, since 2019, India-Saudi ties have grown considerably while ties with Islamabad have deteriorated. The Saudi Crown Prince’s interest in brokering peace between India and Pakistan reiterates the growing role of the GCC in South Asia, because the UAE too is supposed to have played an important role in the thaw between India and Pakistan. That was confirmed by the UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, in March 2021. Said Otaiba: ‘UAE played an important role behind the scenes to ensure a “healthy and functional relationship” between India and Pakistan.’
In conclusion, Imran Khan’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia is important in the context of re-engaging with Saudi Arabia after their tensions in the recent past. It is also important in the context of South Asia’s geopolitics and it remains to be seen whether Riyadh also plays a pro-active role in working out a thaw between India and Pakistan.