Saudi Arabia also signed investment agreements with Islamabad worth $20 billion on Sunday as crown prince Mohammed bin Salman began his Asia tour with a two-day trip to Pakistan.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) smile as they look at their delegation members during a signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, Pakistan, on February 17, 2019.
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) smile as they look at their delegation members during a signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, Pakistan, on February 17, 2019. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has ordered the release of about 2,100 Pakistani prisoners from the kingdom's jails during a high-profile visit to Islamabad, Pakistan's information minister said on Monday.

Crown prince Mohammed arrived in Pakistan on Sunday at the beginning of an Asian tour, which will include China and is seen as an attempt by him to rebuild his reputation after the murder of Saudi critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia on Sunday signed investment agreements with Pakistan worth $20 billion.

The crown prince had "ordered the immediate release of 2,107 Pakistani prisoners," after a request by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said in a post on Twitter.

The fate of thousands of Pakistani workers locked up in jails across the Middle East is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where there is a perception the prisoners are mostly poor labourers who have no real legal recourse.

Huge numbers of Pakistanis travel to the Middle East every year, with many working on construction sites or as domestic helpers. The remittances they send back are vital for Pakistan's dollar-starved economy.

Saudi Arabia has yet to comment on the Pakistani announcement of a prisoner release.

Saudi vows to 'de-escalate' India-Pakistan tensions

Saudi Arabia vowed to "de-escalate" rising tensions between Pakistan and India on Monday as crown prince Mohammed prepared to travel from Islamabad to New Delhi.

The kingdom's foreign minister spoke at a press conference in Islamabad as Pakistan recalled its envoy from Delhi for "consultations," the latest development in a fresh diplomatic crisis between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Delhi has vowed to retaliate after a suicide blast which killed 41 Indian paramilitaries in Kashmir on Thursday, the deadliest attack in the disputed Himalayan region in decades.

High-profile visit

Pakistan has shown appreciation by treating crown prince Mohammed's trip as the biggest state visit since one by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015, soon after Beijing announced plans to invest tens of billions of dollars on infrastructure in Pakistan as part of China's Belt and Road initiative.

On Sunday, Pakistan Air Force jets escorted crown prince Mohammed's flight when he entered the country's airspace.

At the airport, a young boy and girl in traditional Pakistani dress handed the crown prince flowers.

He was greeted by a host of Pakistani Cabinet ministers and the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Khan himself drove the prince to the prime minister's residence, where he was met by an honour guard.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) drives a vehicle as he receives Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on his arrival at Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Nur Khan Base in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on February 17, 2019.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) drives a vehicle as he receives Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on his arrival at Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Nur Khan Base in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on February 17, 2019. (Reuters)

'A friend in need'

During his two-day stay in Pakistan, the crown prince will hold formal talks with Khan to find ways to enhance bilateral cooperation. Saudi Arabia will invest in the energy sector across the country, including setting up an oil refinery in the southwest near the border with Iran. The move will likely irk Tehran as Iran is Saudi Arabia's regional foe.

TRT World 's Kamran Yousaf brings more from the capital Islamabad.

Shortly after his arrival, crown prince Mohammed, accompanied by a high-powered delegation including leading businessmen and Cabinet ministers, attended a signing ceremony for the investment agreements worth $20 billion.

"This is first phase," he said, at the ceremony, adding that he hoped the future would bring even more Saudi investment in Pakistan.

Pakistani soldiers (L) patrol on a street next to welcoming posters of Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Islamabad on February 17, 2019.
Pakistani soldiers (L) patrol on a street next to welcoming posters of Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Islamabad on February 17, 2019. (AFP)

"Saudi Arabia has always been a friend of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has been a friend in need," Khan said.

Pakistan is in the grip of a major debt crisis and is seeking a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund but has yet to sign the deal, which comes with tough conditions.

Crown prince Mohammed will later travel to neighbouring India amid heightened tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi over this week's suicide car bombing in India-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 paramilitary troops.

Pakistan condemned the attack, but India blames Islamabad for the bombing.

Pakistan enjoys close ties with Saudi Arabia. It maintains a balancing act between Riyadh and Tehran.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Sunday that the visit by the crown prince will take their countries' bilateral relations "to new heights."

Pakistan voiced support for the crown prince during the international outcry after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. 

Khan attended an investment conference in Saudi Arabia in October that saw a wave of cancellations linked to the Khashoggi killing.

The crown prince has called the killing a "heinous crime that cannot be justified."

Khashoggi, who had written critically about the prince, went missing on October 2 after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After denying any knowledge of his death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually said that he was killed in an operation aimed at forcibly bringing the writer back to the kingdom.

Saudi prosecutors say the plan was masterminded by two former advisers to the crown prince.

The kingdom denies the crown prince knew of the plot.

Source: AP