Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has paid a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia from Friday till Sunday at the invitation of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, accompanied by a high-level delegation. Regular high-level bilateral visits have been instrumental in promoting fraternal relations and close cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have a long and historic fraternal relationship, rooted in shared beliefs, shared history, and mutual support. However, there has been no traditional warmth in the relations between the two countries since 2015.
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Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has also visited Riyadh last week, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi military leaders to discuss issues of mutual interest, including defense cooperation between the two countries.
Bilateral relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been strained since the 10th April 2015 resolution of the Pakistani parliament to remain neutral in the war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen and subsequently Pakistan’s decision not to send Pakistani forces into the war.
The traditional warmth in Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations has not remained but the element of frostiness has prevailed in bilateral relations. Some fear sending troops would worsen relations with Iran, and Pakistan does not want tensions with its neighbor Iran at all.
Pakistan has always had deep ties with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia has given complete support to Pakistan in every difficult time.
It was King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who not only provided oil to Pakistan on credit but also provided a significant amount of oil for free for a significant duration to lessen the burden of the economic sanctions imposed on Pakistan as a result of its nuclear explosions in 1998.
After the formation of Imran Khan’s government in Pakistan as a result of the 2018 elections, efforts were made again by both the countries to bring Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations to a full and solid level, while Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan was seen as a new attempt to reset the Saudi-Pakistan relations in the field of economic cooperation.
However, due to some geographical and regional developments and mutual concerns on both sides, Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan had not been very successful in breaking the stalemate and restoring the traditional warmth.
Reasons for deteriorating relations
The question arises here as to what were the factors that led to aloofness in the relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The first factor in this regard is the decision of Pakistan to remain neutral in the war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, while the decision to maintain neutrality in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also added to it.
Secondly, bilateral relations deteriorated even when Pakistan chose to remain neutral even in the Qatar-Gulf crisis.
The third major reason is Pakistan’s inclination towards Turkey and Malaysia. In this regard, on the occasion of the annual session of the UN General Assembly, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan agreed to launch a joint TV channel to combat Islamophobia.
The fourth reason is Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s statement in August last year in which he criticized the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not convening a high-level meeting to support the Kashmir issue.
The call raised eyebrows in Riyadh where it was widely seen as a warning that Pakistan was preparing to call for a session outside OIC auspices. Following criticism from Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Saudi Arabia surrendered its economic aid to Pakistan and was told to repay the $1 billion interest-free loan, thus forcing Islamabad to turn to China for an emergency loan, while the oil credit facility that Saudi Arabia offered to Pakistan was also not renewed.
Under these circumstances, Pakistan’s inclination towards Turkey and Malaysia was disliked by Saudi Arabia and was likened to a group of anti-Saudi Islamic countries comprising Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Pakistan.
Now Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are making serious efforts to restore the traditional warmth in their relations, while Saudi King Salman and Turkish President Erdogan had a telephone conversation in which they vowed to improve their bilateral relations. Similarly, Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman has softened his approach towards Iran in his recent statement.
According to an agreement concluded in the wake of the Prime Minister’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 between the two states.
This is a significant development and the Supreme Coordination Council will serve as a permanent framework for sustaining the long-standing relationship between the two countries.
The talks between Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Saudi leadership 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.
Pakistan’s strategic ally
During the recent visit, Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders must have known Saudi Arabia’s views on Islamabad’s recent relations with India. To some extent, the UAE has been instrumental in advancing the backchannel diplomacy between New Delhi and Islamabad.
It is important to note that the UAE cannot act as a peace broker between Pakistan and India without the approval and support of its patron and key ally i.e. 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, the two countries have strong trade ties, with a total of more than $1.7 billion in 2019 which consists of approximately 74% of its oil imports from Saudi Arabia.
Based on the above dynamics, it can be stated that Pakistan still considers Saudi Arabia as 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.
Dr. Tahir Ashraf holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. He is affiliated with the Department of International Relations, Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, Pakistan, and can be contacted at email@example.com.The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.