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Dealing with the Saudis

Updated October 03, 2018

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The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE long-standing strategic alliance between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has taken on a new dimension with prospects of the kingdom participating in CPEC projects.

The Saudis have reportedly also shown an interest in investing in the oil, energy and mineral sectors. The new Pakistani government is looking to Riyadh to bail it out of its financial woes.

It is evident that the chill in relations between the two allies in recent years has diminished.

It was significant that Prime Minister Imran Khan chose Riyadh for his first foreign visit within four weeks of coming to power, thus breaking his pledge of not travelling abroad in his first three months in office. The warm welcome given to the new Pakistani prime minister signalled a fresh beginning and the resetting of a critical relationship.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have long maintained a strong strategic relationship. The two countries have worked together very closely within the framework of several bilateral, regional and global forums, including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Their relations, however, hit an all-time low when the Nawaz Sharif government declined the Saudi request to send troops to fight in Yemen in 2015.

The decision, which had parliament’s unanimous support, not only annoyed the Saudis but also affected Pakistan’s relationship with other Gulf countries, some of whom publicly rebuked Pakistan for its ‘non-cooperation’. Although the Saudi royalty had good relations with the Sharif family, the incident strained personal ties.

Pakistan’s refusal to Saudi Arabia’s request for troops was a reiteration of its long-standing policy of not taking sides in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in the Middle East and maintaining its neutrality in the conflict.

However, Pakistan’s strategic tilt towards the kingdom is not without its perils, particularly in view of the growing hostility between Riyadh and Tehran.

Pakistan must improve its ties with Saudi Arabia — while not getting sucked into the Yemen conflict.

Indeed, one major purpose of Khan’s visit was to seek financial assistance from Saudi Arabia to ease Pakistan’s external balance-of-payment problem and avoid going back to the IMF.

While wanting Saudi Arabia to park a certain amount at the State Bank to help boost foreign exchange reserves that have been fast depleting, Pakistan is also seeking oil supply from the kingdom on deferred payment.

Pakistan urgently needs at least $12 billion to survive the crisis. The negotiations between the two countries are still on and it is not certain whether Saudi support alone can bail us out. But the Saudi rulers appear keen on investing in some big projects in Pakistan as part of their 2030 development vision that envisages forging closer partnerships with foreign countries.

Surely this vision also offers Pakistan an opportunity to push up its manpower export to more skilled and managerial levels, inevitably boosting its foreign remittances.

The close ties between Riyadh and Islamabad will provide more opportunities for cooperation within the Saudis’ 2030 vision. Saudi investment would certainly help revive our economy in the long term.

Saudi Arabia is the biggest exporter of oil and petroleum products to Pakistan and has been a key market for Pakistani goods and services. The kingdom, which hosts 1.9 million Pakistanis, tops the list of countries with the highest amount of remittances to Pakistan — over $4.5bn annually.

The fact that Saudi Arabia assured ‘maximum assistance’ to the new prime minister did appear to suggest that the two sides had reached some kind of understanding. Imran Khan declared that a new chapter in bilateral cooperation had been opened.

But there have been other factors too behind the trip. Khan’s dash to Saudi Arabia followed the meeting of the army chief with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) in late August.

The visit to Riyadh of the top Pakistani civil and military leadership underscored a growing strategic partnership between the two countries. Earlier this year, Pakistan had agreed to send an additional 1,000 troops to the kingdom. More than 1,300 troops were already present there for training purposes.

Both nations share strong military ties. Riyadh has traditionally maintained a closer relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment.

Despite the strained relationship between the two countries in the past year, the Saudi government’s ties with the Pakistani military do not appear to have weakened. The appointment of retired army chief Gen Raheel Sharif as head of an ‘Islamic alliance force’ is an example. Pakistan is one of the 41 members of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.

Saudi Arabia has become increasingly militarised and interventionist under MBS, who effectively rules that country. The prince has involved Saudi Arabia in a bloody military expedition in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia.

Pakistan has declared its neutrality in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, but there is strong apprehension that close military cooperation with the Saudis could push the Pakistani government into taking sides.

Saudi defence spokesman Gen Asiri has declared that the alliance wasn’t restricted to confronting terrorist organisations like the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda.

He said the coalition could, at the request of a member, move against rebel groups and militias posing a threat to member countries such as Yemen’s Houthis, which are supported by Iran.

Even if Pakistani troops aren’t physically involved in combat inside Yemen or in any other country on behalf of Saudi Arabia, there is always a danger of the country getting sucked into the conflict with the sizeable deployment of its troops in Saudi Arabia. That will have serious consequences for Pakistan’s national security.

It is extremely important for us to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. Close economic ties with the kingdom will open a window of opportunity for Pakistan.

It is a good idea to include the kingdom in CPEC projects and to invite investment in other fields. But it is also imperative that Pakistan maintains its neutrality in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran.

Indeed, our relations with Saudi Arabia are immensely important. But it is equally important not to get involved in any outside conflict.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 3rd , 2018