ISLAMABAD: As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif prepare to attend the first leadership gathering of the counter-terrorism alliance assembled by Saudi Arabia, the government continues to maintain ambiguity about its role in the group.

The prime minister and the army chief are visiting Saudi Arabia from Wednesday (March 9), separate statements by the Foreign Office and ISPR said. It was, however, not clear if the two will travel together, but at least their itineraries do not match. PM Sharif will be in Saudi Arabia for three days, while Army Chief Gen Sharif, according to military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa’s tweet, will be there for two days.

Both are, however, going there to witness the ongoing military counter-terrorism exercise Raad Al-Shamaal (North Thunder) and its closing ceremony that is being attended by troops from 21 countries — most of which are part of the 34-nation alliance put together by Saudi Arabia.

The exercise was seen as the first practical move towards formalisation of the military alliance.

“A large number of other Heads of State and Government have also been invited to witness the ongoing military exercise,” the FO said in a statement on the PM’s visit.

Talking to Dawn, a senior official explained that there would be meetings between participating leaders on the sidelines about the alliance which is still taking shape and very little clarity existed about its objectives and strategy.

The decision regarding the visit, the FO statement suggests, is driven by strong and historical ties with Saudi Arabia, consistent support for kingdom’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and cooperation with international community for fighting extremism and terrorism.

The statement clarified that the objective for participation in the exercise was to improve counter-terrorism training.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2016