DURING his two-day visit to Pakistan, the government rolled out the red carpet for the de facto ruler of the desert kingdom, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

There was much pomp and circumstance as the prince was feted by the civilian and military elite of this country, while parts of the federal capital were under virtual lockdown to ensure the security of the visiting royal and his large retinue.

Take a look: What’s the deal?

There were also welcome promises on the economic and social fronts, with MoUs worth $20bn signed, the release of Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails announced, as well as a request from Pakistan to ease the immigration procedure for Haj pilgrims.

The relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh is decades old. Pakistani manpower has helped transform the kingdom into what it is today, and in return, expatriates have sent millions of dollars home to support their families.

There is, of course, also a deep military connection, as Pakistan has committed troops for the kingdom’s defence. In fact, as Saudi Arabia hosts Islam’s two holiest cities, the common Pakistani has a soft spot for the kingdom. Indeed, the Saudi investment pledges at this time are welcome, as Pakistan is going through a severe economic crisis.

It is hoped the pledges materialise into mutually profitable ventures that contribute to this country’s economic revival. The visit is also welcome at a time when India is threatening to isolate Pakistan internationally.

However, in international politics, there are rarely any free lunches. While this display of Saudi-Pakistani friendship deserves to be hailed, Pakistan must uphold its sovereignty and national interests in all dealings.

For example, this country, particularly its parliament, took a bold stand by refusing to be sucked into the Saudi-led Yemen war in 2015. While there were consequences — Riyadh’s attitude hardened towards this country — it can be argued that had Pakistan jumped into the Yemeni quagmire, it would have been a disaster of considerable proportions.

Similarly, while promising to stand by Saudi Arabia, this country’s establishment should communicate to the rulers in Riyadh that it will not be a party to any anti-Iran projects.

Also read: 'Pakistan ready to play constructive role between Iran and Saudi Arabia,' Imran Khan tells Iran envoy

Diplomatic observers have pointed out that the Saudi crown prince is interested in creating a regional linkage involving the kingdom, Pakistan and other Asian states as part of his Vision 2030, besides expressing an interest in CPEC.

This would be a welcome move and could help smoothen relations with our eastern neighbour, especially if there are high economic stakes involved for all.

In the long term, Pakistan should look to deepen and broaden its cordial relations with Saudi Arabia. But this should not be done at the cost of our ties with other regional states.

Pakistan cannot afford to get involved in any regional power games, while it must also stay aloof from such adventures for the sake of sectarian harmony within its own borders.

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2019

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