History books show that Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations are rooted in the pre-partition era of British-ruled India.
Saudi delegations were welcomed by leaders of the All India Muslim League in Karachi in 1940. In response to Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's call in 1943, King Abdul Aziz had sent the first foreign aid of £10,000 to help the people in famine-hit Bengal. In 1946, Saudi leaders came forward to help a delegation of the league in the United Nations when the delegates were facing issues in their engagements by the Indian National Congress team.
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.
The crux of Saudi Arabia's cooperation has largely been financial while the nuclear armed Pakistan has lent its support on the security front.
Currently, over 2.5 million Pakistanis work in the KSA and send remittance to the tone of roughly between $5 billion to $6bn.
According to an Arab News report, the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal once described relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries”.
Security Cooperation since 1960s
Since the 1960s, Pakistani soldiers have been stationed in Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom. Pakistan has also been providing training to Saudi soldiers and pilots. In 1969, Pakistani pilots repulsed incursions by Yemeni forces. Pakistani engineers reportedly built Saudi fortifications along its border with Yemen.
Pakistani soldiers were also deployed in the Kingdom during the Iran-Iraq war.
According to a 2016 report, Saudi Arabia was the largest importer of Pakistani arms and had purchased small and medium conventional weaponry worth millions of US dollars.
KSA supports Pakistan after nuclear tests
At a time when almost the entire world was criticising Islamabad for its nuclear experiments in response to the Indian tests, Saudi Arabia was among the few that congratulated Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia had also started providing 50,000 barrels a day of free crude oil worth $2 billion to Pakistan on deferred payments in 1998 and 1999 at the request of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif following sanctions imposed against Pakistan by the world community.
A major portion of this amount was later converted into a grant and the facility was extended in the subsequent years.
On the same foreign policy page
Besides the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it was only Saudi Arabia which had recognised Taliban's rule in Kabul after Russian forces vacated the country.
Later in 2014, the two countries issued a joint policy statement on Kashmir, Afghanistan and Palestine. Both countries recommitted their support for political process in Afghanistan through elections and called for an all-inclusive, intra-Afghan reconciliation.
Saudi Arabia said it “hoped” for a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue in accordance with UN resolutions. The two had also resolved to continue supporting the Palestine cause and seeking the issue’s resolution in accordance with Arab peace initiatives and the relevant UN resolutions.
Similarly, Islamabad had asked Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for “formation of transitional governing body” — a demand in line with the Saudi foreign policy on Syria — and called for withdrawal of “all foreign armed forces and elements” from the country.
$1.5bn ‘gift from friends’
In the first quarter of 2014, it was reported that Saudi Arabia “loaned” $1.5 billion to Pakistan to help Islamabad shore up its foreign exchange reserves, meet debt-service obligations and undertake large energy and infrastructure projects.
The "friendly assistance", as it was termed, contributed to a sharp recovery of the Pakistani rupee, which rose to 97.40 from 105.40 against the dollar between March 4 and 12, making the strongest rally in the last 30 years.
Later, without taking any names, the then finance minister Ishaq Dar said the donation of 1.5 billion dollars by ‘friendly countries’ was a “gift for the people of Pakistan.” Clarifying the ‘rumours’ regarding the status of the donation, the minister said it was neither loan nor given in return for any services. The amount should be accepted with thanks and not be made controversial, he had added.
Saudi royals receive warm welcome
Over the years, Saudi kings — who are the head of state — and their deputies have made few visits to Pakistan. But on the occasions they have, a warm welcome awaited the royals. The recent most visit by a Saudi royal was in 2006 by the then Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. The then president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, premier Shaukat Aziz, opposition leader Maulana Falzur Rehman, federal ministers, chief ministers of the provinces and three services chiefs had received the Saudi king at the airport.
A 21-gun salute was presented to the Saudi king as he emerged from his plane. He was also presented a guard of honour. Later, he was conferred on the country’s highest civilian award, Nishan-i-Pakistan, in recognition of his contribution to development of understanding and cooperation between the two countries.
Bumpy patch in bilateral relationship
In 2015, the KSA resorted to air strikes in Yemen against Houthi rebels and asked Pakistan to join what it called war against terrorism. Pakistan, who was already fighting against terrorists on its own soil for more than a decade, declined politely. Islamabad reiterated its resolve to protect the Holy sites as well as the Saudi soil.
During this period, the Saudis tried to coax Pakistan to join multiple blocs: first against the Syrian regime, then against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and then a broader “Islamic” anti-terror coalition. The Saudi authorities unilaterally announced that Pakistan was a part of the coalition. Pakistan agreed to join the coalition but made it clear that its troops were there only to protect the Kingdom.
It is worth mentioning here that after his retirement, Pakistan's former chief of army staff retired Gen Raheel Sharif was appointed as head of the coalition force and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) head Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had declared his appointment a state-level decision.
At the start of 2018, Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa made a trip to the Kingdom. It was followed by the army's announcement that it was deploying troops in Saudi Arabia under an existing bilateral security pact.
The size of the deployment was later stated to be around 1,000 troops, and as the opposition raised questions over the decision, the then foreign minister Khawaja Asif revealed that Pakistani troops had been stationed in the Kingdom only for 'internal security' reasons, and not to take part in the Yemen war.
Imran Khan 'resets relations' with the Kingdom
The PTI-led government, which completed its 100 days in power on November 26 last year, counted "resetting relations with key partners including Saudi Arabia and the UAE" among its accomplishments in its performance report.
Imran Khan chose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign tour after becoming prime minister. The premier had visited KSA on the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Following the visit, Khan had said in an interview to Al Arabiya that "anyone who comes to power in Pakistan will visit Saudi Arabia first” as the two countries share a "strong people to people relationship".
In October last year, at a time when various countries pulled out of an investment conference in Riyadh, Prime Minister Imran Khan was among the leaders who attended the event, lending his support to the crown prince and his initiative.
The prime minister's participation in the conference signifies Pakistan's "solidarity with the Kingdom in its efforts to become emerging hub of international business and investment", a press statement at the time had said.
Towards the end of 2018, when the newly elected Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led (PTI) government was facing a severe financial crises, Saudi Arabia announced a $6 billion bailout package for Pakistan’s ailing economy.
The package included $3bn balance of payments support and another $3bn in deferred payments on oil imports.
During the upcoming visit of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are expected to ink three major memorandum of understanding (MoUs) amounting to over $10 billion.
Text by Asad Farooq, design by Hufsa Chaudhry