THE Saudi-Pakistan relationship is decades old and has weathered a number of geopolitical storms. Of late, ties came under stress — over Yemen, Iran, and the Kashmir question — yet these disagreements have been handled through diplomatic channels without major damage to bilateral relations. On Tuesday, the Saudi foreign minister landed in Islamabad heading a delegation to meet his Pakistani counterpart, while later the Saudi side also met the prime minister and the army chief. The high-level visit indicates that despite the irritants, bilateral ties are on track.
While officially the visit took place to discuss economic and regional issues, it is difficult to say what specifics were discussed behind closed doors. It seemed the visit was designed to normalise ties, while the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan may also have come under discussion. After all, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were key members of the US-led grouping that fought the Soviets during the Afghan ‘jihad’, while Riyadh and Islamabad, along with Abu Dhabi, were the only three capitals that recognised the Taliban government after its takeover of Kabul in 1996. Therefore, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are likely keeping an eye on the Afghan theatre in order to evolve a common strategy. The fact is that both sides, as well as other Muslim states, should develop consensus on key issues affecting the Muslim world, especially Palestine and Kashmir. In fact, it was Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s outburst last year criticising the Saudi-led OIC over its inaction on Kashmir that caused ties to nosedive. It took visits by the prime minister and army chief to Riyadh to help smoothen matters. In his recent visit Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan mentioned the need to “work [together] on regional issues, whether it’s Kashmir, Palestine or Yemen”.
Pakistan must keep up its diplomatic efforts to maintain cordial ties will all states, specifically within the Muslim bloc, as well as the region. While Saudi Arabia is a traditional partner, Iran is a neighbour and shares cultural and historical links with Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan must work to build bridges between Riyadh and Tehran to the best of its ability. Saudi Arabia can also play a major role by raising a voice against atrocities meted out to the people of occupied Kashmir, considering its standing in the Muslim world. The Pakistan-Saudi relationship must be based on respect and mutual benefit. For example, ties hit a major low when Pakistan refused to join the Saudi-led war in Yemen. In hindsight, Pakistan made the right decision by staying away from the quagmire; in fact, the Saudis themselves are now trying to extricate themselves from the Yemen war. Pakistan must remain neutral within the Muslim bloc and try and build bridges between states in different geopolitical camps. Getting sucked into sectarian and regional conflicts is definitely not in its interest, something our ‘brothers’ must understand.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2021