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Pak-Saudi ties

There have been some significant exchange of visits between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan post-election 2013 – an exchange that was lacking during the five year-rule of the PPP-led coalition government.

The Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, also the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, arrived in Pakistan on Saturday and is scheduled to end his visit on Monday (today). His delegation included Dr Mohammed bin Sulaiman Al-Jasser, Minister of Economy and Planning, Dr Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al Rabiah, Minister of Commerce and Industry and Dr Nizar bin Obaid Madani, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs as well as important businessmen. The visit has raised the possibility of the reinstatement of the one-year deferred oil payment, extended by the Saudis till the then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s statement that Pakistan had achieved development take-off – a statement no doubt meant for domestic political consumption but which had unforeseen negative economic implications on the country. This facility, if extended, would massively reduce the pressure on our foreign exchange reserves. And there is speculation that Saudi businesses could invest in our power and other sectors including purchasing farms to enable them to meet Saudi food needs, which in turn would raise output and growth in Pakistan.

There is a considerable scope for enhanced government and business ties as Saudi Arabia accounts for over 10 percent of our import bill, largely fuel imports, and unlike the UAE that accounts for around 9 percent of Pakistan’s total exports Saudi Arabia is not a significant purchaser of Pakistani products. Saudi Arabia’s grant assistance to Pakistan has been no more than 50 million dollars in 2003-04 with no additions since, and while in 2007-08 the country extended 40 million dollars at 2 percent it upped the interest rate to 3.25 percent the subsequent year on a 125.2 million dollar loan. By 2011-12 Saudi government provided 100 million dollars at LIBOR plus 1.25 percent.

Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, deputy minister of defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, visited Pakistan twice: first visit in the third week of January 2014 when he visited Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF); and his second two-day visit commenced on 8 February when he attended not only the launch of a new initiative by Sultana Foundation which was also attended by the Prime Minister but also went to Lahore where he was feted by the Chief Minister Punjab. During his visits he met with Pakistan’s senior military and civilian leadership and there was talk of expansion of ties that may have included the possibility of Pakistani soldiers policing countries that were grappling with the Arab Spring in return for hard cash. Reports indicate that the US suggested Pakistan be approached for the purpose and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif’s first foreign visit after assuming office was to Saudi Arabia, where he met with civilian and military leadership including the Crown Prince – a visit seen by many as indicative of the proposal being taken to the next level. However, it is hoped that the fallout on civilian Pakistani emigrants working in Arab countries, sending remittance income that is keeping the economy afloat be taken into consideration. Saudi Arabia is the largest source of remittance income for Pakistan estimated at 3.6 billion dollars in 2011-12 and 2.97 billion dollars between July-March 2012-13.

Numerous reasons as to why the Saudis were not visible in Pakistan from 2008-2013 have been noted; however, the most common is that the Saudi King, visited by the PPPP co-chairman Zardari soon after his party took over the reins of control in 2008 (though he had not yet become the country’s President), never warmed to him. Supporters of this rationale cite two non-events as evidence of their contention: (i) former President Zardari never visited Saudi Arabia during his Presidency while he made five visits to Saudi rival Iran; and (ii) the repeated requests by the PPP government seeking deferred payment for oil were ignored. The media throughout 2008 till almost 2010 continued to report several reasons for the “delay” in extending the deferred payment facility including the rather inane excuse of unavailability of the Saudi Oil Minister who was ostensibly on vacation for more than two years.

Still others accuse incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, (with extremely close known ties with the Saudi royal family who provided the Sharif family refuge after the 12 October 1999 Musharraf coup) of advising the Kingdom not to extend any support to the PPP government. It is doubtful if the Pakistani civilian or Saudi leadership would publicly endorse either of these speculations.

Be that as it may, it is gratifying that a flurry of Saudi visits has been evident since January 2014. The question is if Nawaz Sharif played a major role in this regard as generally perceived. A look at some key visits to the Kingdom may provide an answer. Nawaz Sharif visited the Kingdom in August 2013, when he met the King as well as the Crown Prince. In December 2013, Secretary Defence Chuck Hagel visited Saudi Arabia where he met with senior government officials including the Crown Prince. The media was informed that a number of regional issues including Afghanistan and Pakistan came under discussion. At the time of Hagel’s visit to Saudi Arabia local analysts speculated that discussions were probably focused on Saudi mediation for talks with the Afghan Taliban with the Doha option having been rejected by the Afghan government.

A month later the Saudi Foreign Minister arrived in Pakistan on a two-day visit. Few local analysts referred to the visit as an engagement with the Pakistan government in the aftermath of the Hagel visit to Saudi Arabia and, instead, there was considerable speculation that he had come to urge the government to allow Pervez Musharraf to leave the country; implicit in this was the contention that the US and the Saudi governments were on the same page with respect to allowing Musharraf leave Pakistan as by January 2014 an erstwhile ‘defiant’ Musharraf who had insisted that he would face the courts and prove his innocence had formally requested that he be allowed to leave the country to (i) meet his ailing mother in Dubai, and later (ii) to enable him to have an angiography abroad as he regarded the risk of such a test in Pakistan too great.

There was scepticism at Saudi official comment that Musharraf’s fate was an internal Pakistani matter and three events were cited as proof of Saudi mediation in the past in Pakistani politics: (i) release and subsequent air lifting of Nawaz Sharif and his entire family to Saudi Arabia after the 1999 Musharraf coup after a deal was struck between the two countries, (ii) reported Saudi royal anger at Nawaz Sharif when he returned to Pakistan before the ten years of exile agreed were up, and (iii) insistence by the Saudis that Sharif be allowed to return after Benazir Bhutto had been allowed to return under the US and some say Saudi brokered National Reconciliation Ordinance with Musharraf. However, past mediation does not provide proof of ongoing mediation.

A major irritant, though never highlighted officially, however remains namely the proxy war – a war instigated by a major Middle Eastern power that does not itself participate – that is ongoing in Pakistan leading to much bloodshed. This month Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan extended an invitation to his Saudi counterpart to visit Pakistan and it is expected that the two men would discuss signing of different agreements relating to security, human trafficking, smuggling, transfer of prisoners (the Supreme Court has taken suo motu notice of Pakistani prisoners held in Saudi Arabia) and one would hope as the Saudis have done in the West proactively seeking to throttle funding of terror organisations.

One would however hope that both the Saudi and the Pakistani governments have learnt a valuable lesson with the fluctuations in relations especially during the past decade: relations should be on the pattern of Pak-China relations that have remained unaffected by government changes or global factors. One way to achieve this may be to consider launching a strategic dialogue initiative that deals with enhancing ties as well as dealing with irritants that may crop up from time to time.

Anjum Ibrahim, "Pak-Saudi ties," Business recorder. 2014-02-17.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political relations , International relations , Pakakistan-Saudi relations , Foreign investment , Foreign exchange , Pakistan , Saudi Arabia