ISLAMABAD: Coming in the backdrop of anger in Saudi Arabia over its criticism in Pakistan, the surprise ‘invitation’ for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Riyadh has left many wondering about the agenda of the trip.
The Prime Minister’s Office had in a late night announcement on Friday said: “The newly crowned King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, has sent a special invitation to the Prime Minister to visit the Kingdom in the first week of March.”
The Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security, Sartaj Aziz, told Dawn that bilateral cooperation would be discussed during the trip, which would be the first after the completion of succession in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Mr Sharif’s last visit to Saudi Arabia in January was for the funeral of the king.
No dates for the upcoming trip have been decided as yet even though the Saudi invitation asked Mr Sharif to come over in the first week of March.
The Saudis haven’t indicated the issues that they would like to discuss during the meeting with Mr Sharif.
But answers, diplomats and foreign policy observers say, could be found in the context. Saudis have been extremely disturbed over allegations in Pakistan about funding from the Kingdom for extremist and terrorist groups.
The Saudi embassy had, in an unprecedented move, tried to clarify its position a fortnight ago. But instead of ending the row, it led to a low-key spat between the embassy and the Foreign Office.
In a veiled rebuttal to embassy’s claim that Kingdom’s funding of seminaries was cleared by the Foreign Office, the spokesperson of the Foreign Office had said that only, “Offers of economic assistance and project based assistance by Saudi Arabia are processed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in consultation with the relevant departments and agencies of the Government of Pakistan.”
Some claim that the delay in the arrival of Abdullah Zahrani, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador-designate to Pakistan, was also because of the underlying tensions in the relationship.
Ambassador Zahrani, according to the source, was expected some eight weeks ago.
There has been no Saudi ambassador in Pakistan for about eight months now. Amb Ali Saeed Asseri was earlier named for a second stint in Pakistan, but his nomination was later withdrawn because of developments in Middle East.
Amb Zahrani is an Asseri protégé having served as his deputy both in Islamabad and Beirut.
Besides the controversy over terrorism funding, Riyadh, a keen follower of Pak-Saudi relations said, was unhappy over Islamabad not fulfilling its part of the commitment of the deal under which it was given $1.5 billion assistance.
The assistance was announced during King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to Pakistan last year as the crown prince.
Though Pakistan had been denying that the money was given for some specific objective, the source said it was meant for safeguarding Riyadh’s regional interests.
With the March 31 deadline for a political framework for deal on Iran’s nuclear programme nearing, Riyadh is getting increasingly anxious.
A diplomatic source familiar with the thinking in Riyadh says that KSA needs Pakistan’s help for containing Iran, more than ever and wants to remind Islamabad about its commitment.
Saudi Arabia has been briefed by the US on the progress in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mr Sharif’s trip to Riyadh would most likely coincide with the meeting between Iran and the six world powers (known as the P5+1: the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China) for finalising the outline for the final accord.
A deal or no deal, Riyadh has its work cut out.
A successfully concluded deal would have strategic implications for Saudi Arabia compelling it to challenge the diplomatic breakthrough. But, failure to conclude an accord would mean that KSA would be required by the West to ratchet up pressure on Tehran.
In both scenarios, the source said, Riyadh would expect Islamabad to side with it.
Mr Sharif, who has investments in Saudi Arabia, is likely to get a different treatment this time. The new set-up in KSA may not be viewing Pakistan as sympathetically as the late King Abdullah did.
Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2015