Friends, again ! | By M Ziauddin


Friends, again !

THE joint statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three-day (7-9 May) visit to Saudi Arabia on the invitation of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) reaffirms the historical and fraternal ties between Islamabad and Riyadh.

Significantly, the two leaders discussed ways to strengthen and enhance economic and trade relations by exploring areas of investment and opportunities available in the light of the Kingdom’s 2030 vision and Pakistan’s development priorities emanating from a shift from geo-politics to geo-economics.

The Crown Prince welcomed the recent understanding reached between the military authorities of Pakistan and India regarding ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) indicating rather emphatically KSA’s keen interest in and support to the process of normalization of relations between India and Pakistan, emphasizing at the same time the importance of dialogue between the two antagonistic neighbours to resolve their mutually nagging outstanding issues, especially Jammu and Kashmir dispute, to ensure peace and stability in the region.

Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, the Crown Prince specifically acknowledged Pakistan’s facilitative role in the Afghan peace process.

The two sides, underlining that an inclusive, broad-based and comprehensive political settlement is the only way forward, urged the Afghan parties to realize the historic opportunity for achieving a political settlement in Afghanistan.

And significantly, the two leaders agreed to continue mutual consultations on the Afghan peace process.

Acknowledging the leading role of the Kingdom in addressing the challenge posed by climate change, the Prime Minister welcomed “the Saudi Green and Middle East Green Initiatives” launched by Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Crown Prince appreciated the Prime Minister’s “Clean and Green Pakistan” initiative, as well as the successful “10 Billion Tree Tsunami” initiative.

The two reaffirmed their full support for all the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. They also expressed their support for political solutions in Syria and Libya and very rightly condemned the attacks of terrorist groups and militias, including Houthi militias, by ballistic missiles and drones on the territory of the KSA.

They also discussed issues pertaining to the Islamic world stressing the need for concerted efforts by the Muslim countries to confront extremism and violence, reject sectarianism, and strive to achieve international peace and security.

They reaffirmed that terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization, or ethnic group.

In order to further strengthen and diversify bilateral relations, the following three agreements and two Memoranda of Understanding were signed.

The agreements pertained to establishment of Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council (SPSCC); Cooperation in the field of Combating Crimes; and on Transfer of Convicted Prisoners.

The two MoUs related to Combating Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursor Chemicals and; Framework between SFD and Pakistan for financing projects in Energy, Hydropower Generation, Infrastructure, Transport & Communication and Water Resource Development.

The joint statement reflects a vast improvement in the mutual relations between Riyadh and Islamabad that had hit the rock bottom when in April 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government decided against accepting Saudi Arabia’s invitation to join the Kingdom-led military coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The deterioration in its relations with its decades-old guardian angel, who is also the custodian of Islam’s most revered holy sites, had happened at a time when Islamabad was already feeling distraught by Saudi moves to establish closer economic ties and increased military cooperation with Pakistan’s archrival, India with the process culminating in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Riyadh in April 2016.

Trying to re-establish normal relation Pakistan had sent troops to Saudi Arabia on a training and advisory mission in 2018.

Pakistan’s former COAS General Raheel Sharif had, in the meanwhile, accepted Saudi offer to lead the coalition forces.

Same year, to further narrow the widening gap in the bilateral relations the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi negotiated an economic and cultural package that fostered social and cultural exchange programs; increased the quota for the Pakistani workforce in construction projects in the kingdom; and secured Saudi investment for re-gasified liquefied natural gas plants, an oil refinery, and alternate energy.

But things did not improve because before leaving for his first visit to Saudi Arabia in October 2018 the PM had expressed concern over the Khashoggi murder but added that Pakistan was “desperate” for a Saudi loan.

But as luck would have it Pakistan did regain partly the Saudi rapport the same month when Islamabad attended MbS’ “Davos in Desert” seminar which was boycotted by the US, UK and France over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This positive inflection in the mutual relations created conditions conducive for Riyadh to oblige Pakistan, facing a certain debt default, with $3 billion in cash assistance and $3.2 billion worth of oil and gas supplies on deferred payment.

However, within two months we were back in the KSA’s bad books as Pakistan decided without seeking the Kingdom’s approval to attend a conference scheduled to be held in Kuala Lumpurin December 2018 which was being organized by Turkey, Malaysia and Iran — the three countries that were presumably challenging the Kingdom’s exalted position in the Ummah.

Following Riyadh’s warning of serious consequences, Pakistan withdrew from the conference at the last minute.

In February 2019, Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Islamabad to sign an economic and cultural package negotiated between the two countries in early 2018.

But the relations once again became a bit sour when in August 2020, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi publicly warned that Islamabad would look elsewhere for regional support if Saudi Arabia did not call a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Kashmir.

Riyadh responded to the threat by recalling part of the $3 billion loan (which Pakistan repaid by obtaining emergency loan of $1 billion from China) and not renewing the $3.2 billion oil and gas credit that had expired in May 2020.

However, earlier this year, amid hectic closed-door talks between Islamabad and Riyadh, Pakistan got out of paying back the remaining $1 billion of the $3 billion soft loan and renewed talks on establishing an oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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