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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Renewing Pak-Saudi strategic partnership

While the two sides have not changed their policies on key issues, they seem ready to 'further strengthen' the existing strategic cooperation and the bilateral relationship - writes Dr. Tahir Ashraf, an IR expert.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has paid his maiden three-day official overseas visit to Saudi Arabia from 28th to 30th April at the invitation of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, accompanied by a high-level delegation. The invitation was extended by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman when he called to greet Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on his election.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have a long and historic fraternal relationship, rooted in shared beliefs, shared history, and mutual support. Regular high-level bilateral visits have been instrumental in promoting fraternal relations and close cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. However, it is notable that the Saudi leadership has been more comfortable working with the Sharifs.

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 an ample quantity of oil for free for a long duration to lessen the burden of the economic sanctions imposed on Pakistan in the wake of its nuclear explosions in 1998.

Read more: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia vow to strengthen fraternal ties

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.

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 in February 2019 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.

Under the government of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, efforts were continued to bring the traditional warmth to Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations and to some extent, they were successful which include setting up a ‘Supreme Coordination Council’ during PM Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2021 while Pakistan hosted the 48thsession of OIC Council of Foreign Ministers held in Islamabad on 22-23 March 2022.

Read more: 48th session of OIC: A collective voice of the Muslim world

According to an agreement reached during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2021, the two sides decided to set up a ‘Supreme Coordination Council’ co-chaired by the Saudi Crown Prince and the Pakistani Prime Minister to bring the two countries closer together and establish relationships. The purpose of this council was to develop a comprehensive strategy to further expand relations between the two countries and to institutionalize bilateral relations while enhancing economic and other ties.

Milestone for Pak-Saudi ties?

Since last year Pakistan and Saudi Arabia started making serious efforts to restore the traditional warmth in their relations. The visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to Pakistan on 27th July 2021, indicated that Pak-Saudi bilateral relations were once again moving in the right direction with the traditional warmth. This can be gauged from the statement made by the Saudi Foreign Minister at the joint news conference held after the talks that “we have a very common view on regional stability, regional security, resolving issues through dialogue.”

The setting up of the ‘Supreme Coordination Council’ co-chaired by the Saudi Crown Prince and the Pakistani Prime Minister to establish closer ties between the two states was a good initiative to institutionalize the bilateral relationship between the two countries. 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.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman held discussions to further strengthen the bilateral, economic, investment and trade ties. The talks between the two sides reviewed the long-standing strategic partnership, prospects for bilateral cooperation and promising opportunities in the fields of employment, investment, trade and energy. It is expected that these understandings will usher in a new era of cooperation.

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 ‘further strengthen’ the existing strategic cooperation and bilateral relationship.

Dr. Tahir Ashraf holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and extensively writes on global issues. He is affiliated with the Department of International Relations, Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and can be contacted at tahirmian1@bzu.edu.pk. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.