Dr. Tahir Ashraf
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has just returned from a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). The two countries share a long and historic fraternal relationship. Not least when King Abdullah provided oil to Pakistan for free and on credit to ease the burden of economic sanctions imposed on the country following its nuclear tests in 1998.
However, ties have been strained since 2015, when Pakistan’s Parliament voted to remain neutral in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen and subsequently refused to send troops into the conflict. Behind-the-scenes, the Saudis took this to mean that Islamabad was siding with Tehran. In reality, Pakistan did not wish to risk tensions with neighbouring Iran.
The Imran Khan government has focused on repairing the bilateral relationship. Indeed, the visit by the Crown Prince to Pakistan back in 2019 was viewed as a first step in the right direction towards this end, especially in the field of economic cooperation.
However, it ultimately failed to break the stalemate with the question of Pakistan’s neutrality in Yemen still looming large. Tensions were further fuelled when Islamabad refused to be drawn into the Qatar-Gulf crisis.
Then there is also the matter of Pakistan’s visible tilt towards Turkey and Malaysia, with the three sides agreeing to launch a joint TV channel to combat rising Islamophobia. Riyadh views Turkey and Malaysia as part of an anti-Saudi Islamic club that also includes Iran.
However, perhaps the biggest stumbling block came when Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi last year lambasted the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not convening a high-level meeting to support the Kashmir issue.
This raised eyebrows in Riyadh where it was widely seen as a warning that Pakistan was preparing to call for a session outside OIC auspices. Almost immediately, Saudi Arabia recalled its economic aid to Pakistan, demanding the repayment of a $1 billion interest-free loan. Thereby forcing Islamabad to turn to Beijing for an emergency loan, while Saudi oil credit facilities were not renewed.
Nevertheless, there does appear to be a thaw in the offing. Aside from recent moves to reset the Pak-Saudi relationship, Saudi King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a telephone conversation in which they vowed to improve bilateral ties.
Similarly, MBS has softened his approach towards Iran when he recently announced that the Kingdom sought good relations with Tehran.’In the wake of Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the two sides have decided to set up a ‘Supreme Coordination Council’ – co-chaired by the Saudi Crown Prince and the Pakistani Prime Minister – to establish closer ties.
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This is a significant development and the Supreme Coordination Council will serve as a permanent framework for sustaining the long-standing bilateral relationship.
Dialogue also resulted in the signing of memoranda of understanding in the areas of economic cooperation, strategic partnership, trade, investment, energy, environment, and counter-narcotics. These agreements will lead to the opening up of new avenues of cooperation.
During the recent visit, Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders must have known Saudi Arabia’s views on the recent thawing of relations with India. As for the UAE’s role in backchannel mediations – this could not happen without the approval and support of the latter’s patron and key ally, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is home to more than twenty lakh Pakistanis who are playing an important role in the development and prosperity of both countries. In addition, Riyadh and Islamabad enjoy strong trade ties, totalling more than $1.7 billion in 2019; including 74 percent of oil imports from Saudi Arabia.
Based on the above dynamics, it can be concluded that Pakistan still considers Saudi Arabia a strategic ally and may not be able to completely deviate from Riyadh’s influence, while the two sides have not changed their policies on strategic issues. However, they now seem ready to ‘reset’ their bilateral relationship.
The writer holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. He is affiliated with the Department of International Relations, Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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