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May 16, 2021

For long, Pakistan has needed and received Saudi Arabia’s support. Now, may be the time to reciprocate

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Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, along with Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and several ministers, can be the beginning of a new era in Pakistan-KSA ties. It appears as if the visit was planned at Riyadh’s request as the Kingdom is looking for international support after US President Biden told King Salman that he would hold Riyadh accountable for its human rights abuses.

PM Khan and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) inked several agreements during the visit for cooperation to fight climate change and drug smuggling and facilitate recruitment of Pakistani work force for energy, water and infrastructure projects. A coordination council was also formed.

Khan’s visit is being seen as a success for both sides. The KSA has always been an important friend and strategic partner for Pakistan. Its influence on Pakistan can be gauged from the fact that Islamabad has been formulating its policies keeping in view the Saudi interests.

Gen Bajwa’s first visit after assuming his office was to the KSA. PM Khan also followed his example and selected the KSA as the first country for his maiden international visit as prime minister. This is his seventh visit to the KSA after becoming the prime minister. His last visit, planned amid growing tension between the two sides, had ended up further widening the diplomatic gulf between traditional allies. Pakistan had refused to send its ground troops to Yemen for KSA’s war against Houthi rebels and the KSA gave a cold shoulder to Pakistan’s request for unequivocal statement on Kashmir after the Modi government changed the constitutional status of the disputed state unilateral legislation and imposed a harsh curfew in the valley. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had publicly criticised the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia, for its inaction over repression of Kashmiris.

The KSA has always supported Pakistan in difficult times with oil import credit and loans. In 2018, Saudi Arabia extended a multi-billion dollar financial package to Pakistan to boost its foreign exchange reserves. However, after Pakistan’s refusal to send troops to Yemen, an irritated Riyadh asked Pakistan to return the $1 billion soft loan. Pakistan had to borrow from China to repay the KSA.

For its part, Pakistan has always extended military and diplomatic support to the KSA and stood by Riyadh. Hundreds of Pakistani troops are currently serving in the KSA. Pakistan’s bilateral annual trade with Saudi Arabia stands at around $4 billion, mostly consisting of Saudi oil imports. More than two million Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia, sending around $6 billion annually in remittances.

Pakistan has struggling recently to keep its economy afloat. Border tensions both in the east and the west have made the job harder. It needs all the help it can get from Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan has always needed KSA’s support on the economic and diplomatic fronts. However, the situation has changed somewhat. The Kingdom now needs Pakistan’s support for its own external reasons.

The United States, its traditional ally, is moving away from the KSA, diplomatically. President Trump had inked mammoth trade and arms deals with King Salman and MBS, the crown prince. However, President Biden’s recent statement has disappointed the royals.

President Biden’s statement came after a recently-declassified intelligence report submitted to him concluded that MBS was likely to have approved an operation to capture or eliminate Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist who had been a strong critic of the crown prince. Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

“KSA’s support has always been needed in Pakistan. Now, the KSA too needs Pakistan’s support because its key ally, the US, is changing its policy towards Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia may now want more friends in Asia. It may need their support in the West and at global forums. The new agreements between Pakistan and the KSA are a win-win situation for both countries,” says Khaled Ahmad

In February 2021, President Biden confirmed that he had spoken to King Salman. He said that he had warned the King that there will be significant changes in the KSA’s relationship with the US. The report said the crown prince’s absolute control of the Kingdom’s intelligence organisations would make it highly unlikely that such an operation could have been carried out without his go ahead.

KSA’s Foreign Ministry rejected the accusation, calling the conclusion unjustified and inaccurate. But an impression is developing that the US is withdrawing its support to the KSA.

Another challenge and threat to the KSA’s status as the Muslim leader is Turkey. Historically, Turkey-KSA ties have been a mix of cooperation and competition. In April 2021, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Erdogan, stated that Turkey was looking to repair relations with Saudi Arabia. The dust will likely take some time to settle.

The recent differences started in 2008 with the Arab Spring uprisings. Turkey supported the Muslim Brotherhood calling it a legitimate political movement in several Arab countries. The KSA opposed the movement, sensing that it might pose a serious threat to its internal stability.

In 2017, when the KSA severed ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups, Turkey came to Qatar’s rescue, transporting essential goods after Riyadh had imposed sanctions. Turkey also increased its military cooperation and housed an increased number of its troops in Qatar.

In October 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkey was seen a major role in implicating Saudi authorities in the murder.

Moreover, Turkey and the KSA have been engaged in proxy wars in Libya and Sudan.

In a surprise move that indicates the KSA needs more friends in Asia, the Kingdom and its arch rival Iran have held secret talks in Iraq. A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed this on May 10. “We are trying to reach meaningful agreements through negotiations with the KSA,” said the spokesman. “De-escalation of tensions between the two Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf region is in the interest of both nations and the region,” Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a televised weekly news conference. Iran was waiting for the outcome of the talks, he said: “We welcome resolving of the issues that have existed between the two countries... We will use our best efforts in this regard.” Iran and Saudi Arabia have been mired in a rivalry that has given rise to conflicts across the region, from Yemen to Syria to Iraq. The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 2016.

Analyst and former diplomat Khaled Ahmad says: “KSA’s support has always been needed in Pakistan. Now, the KSA also needs Pakistan’s support because its key ally, the US, is changing its foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia.”

Ahmad says that every country has its own foreign policy priorities. “The KSA has huge stakes in Pakistan. At the same time, it has bigger stakes in India. We have been unable to benefit more from their wealth due to the scarcity of economic and investment venues. India has a huge market where Saudi Arabia has invested. We should not mind that. Saudis got offended after Shah Mahmood Qureshi rebuked them over not holding OIC session.”

“I feel that Saudi Arabia now wants more friends in Asia. It wants their support in the West and at global forums. The new agreements between Pakistan and the KSA are a win-win thing for both countries. This will save jobs of 2.1 million Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia besides opening new venue of joint business and defence ventures.”

Following the visit, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said his country could play a role in reducing tensions between Pakistan and India. He was responding to a question during an interview with Pakistan Television that dealt in considerable detail with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three-day official visit to the Kingdom. Talking about the often poor relations between Pakistan and India, Prince Faisal praised the two nuclear-armed neighbours for reviving and reinstating a ceasefire along the restive Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Kashmir region. He called the move “an excellent step in the right direction.”

Prince Faisal described Prime Minister Khan’s visit to his country as an extremely important one in the history of bilateral relations. “The visit by Imran Khan is extremely important in the history of brotherly relations. We have had an excellent visit by the prime minister and many, many subjects (have been) covered,” he said.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at BukhariMubasher

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