THE relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is indeed a strong one that goes back decades. While Pakistanis have a special regard for the kingdom due to its position as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, political, economic and military ties are also robust. However, the relationship has experienced turbulence over the past few years, mainly because of changing geopolitical realities in the region, and the varying responses Islamabad and Riyadh have given to meeting these challenges.

The most recent manifestation of unease in ties was the Saudi demand for timely repayment of part of a loan Pakistan had taken from the kingdom. Though the money was returned to the Saudis with China’s help, in the past such demands were unthinkable from Riyadh. But in an apparent effort to smoothen ties after this episode, the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad on Monday called upon the prime minister. Though officially it was stated that “bilateral cooperation and the Covid-19 situation” were discussed, it is safe to assume that attempts were made to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. This assumption is substantiated by the fact that the Saudi foreign minister is due to visit Pakistan next month.

In the modern era, perhaps the height of Pakistan-Saudi cooperation came when both states were on the same side helping the US give the Soviets a tough time in the Afghan ‘jihad’. Of course, the cooperation has continued thereafter, especially on the military and economic fronts, with the kingdom currently hosting over a million Pakistani workers, who in turn have over the decades played a major role in transforming Saudi Arabia into a modern state.

However, the relationship was jolted in 2015 when — against presumed Saudi wishes — parliament voted against entering the Yemen war. While the move had earned Riyadh’s ire, the collective wisdom of parliament has proved correct, keeping Pakistan away from a conflict that is an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. Yet last year it appears the Saudis were more successful in pressuring Pakistan, as this country stayed away from a summit in Malaysia that Riyadh saw as an alternative to the OIC.

The Saudis are wary of seeing the formation of a bloc including Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran and Turkey lest it challenge Arab ‘leadership’ of the Muslim world. Also, Prime Minister Imran Khan has said he has been facing demands to recognise Israel, with speculation that our Arab friends may be nudging us to establish ties with Tel Aviv.

Going forward, Pakistan should by all means work towards improving and strengthening the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, this should not come at the cost of sovereignty; this country must remain free to take decisions regarding foreign policy that are in its best interest. Moreover, Pakistan must work hard to stabilise its internal economic and political situation so that both friends and foes are unable to exploit its weaknesses.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2020

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