Pakistan's dynamic with Saudi Arabia has historically been of subservience, but the latest visit by Saudi Arabia's crown prince shows that the nature of the relationship could be changing.
Imran Khan’s last few months have been all about aggressive economic diplomacy with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Indeed the Mohammed Bin Zayed and Mohammed Bin Salman duo is the core of what Khan sees as reviving Pakistan’s economic misfortunes.
At the World Government Summit just over a week ago and before the MBS visit, Khan laid out his vision for the future of Pakistan. As the dust settles on the tour which the Pakistani media reported in hyperbole mode - the key take away is that Khan is delivering on his promise of bringing investment into Pakistan and shaking off the image of cronyism and personal benefits over the national interest.
The Saudis might be starting to see Pakistan as an equal rather than decades of subservience from multiple Pakistani leaders. It might still be early days to make an absolute judgement and Pakistan might struggle to balance relations with other countries in the region given undue Saudi reverence, but one thing is clear: the Khan Saudi roadshow got off to a solid start.
What was different about the visit?
Indeed if one was to judge the atmosphere on the streets of Islamabad, one could be forgiven to think that MBS was arriving for his coronation as King. Half the city was in shutdown, a holiday had been declared in the capital, and there was a surplus of banners amongst pomp and pageantry that welcomed MBS.
There have been significant visits before of Saudi royals with King Abdullah visiting General Musharraf and King Faisal visiting Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, but those two relationships were lacking in strategic vision and were more emotional or ideological.
This visit had an all-encompassing element to it – and the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel el Jubeir made an emphatic statement that none of the Saudi largesse was a gift or charity but rather an investment. It is this business and progressive nature of the Saudi trip that makes a significant shift away from the ‘charitable’ nature of the previous relationships. This is a stark contrast to personal gifts given to General Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif.
Gwadar and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is seen as the pivot to Pakistan’s economic future, and there was always talk of Saudi and Emirati mistrust over the development of Gwadar.
However all that seems to have been put aside by the $10 billion investment into Gwadar and bringing over Saudi ARAMCO for the first time as a strategic player in Pakistan. The Saudis are not just bailing Pakistan out but see Khan as the leader that usher Pakistan into a better economic future.
MBS in his speech made it clear that both India and Pakistan should trade together, something Imran Khan has also pushed despite tensions in recent years. What is also different about MBS is that he is telling Pakistan, that he is a close friend and the Saudis will help Pakistan combat corruption and economic doom, but that it must also trade with India whom the Saudis also see as an equally close partner.
Khan puts Pakistani labourers first
Something no other Pakistan leader has brought up before Saudi rulers are the deplorable living and work conditions that are faced with Pakistani labourers in the Kingdom. There has been decades of negligence by successive Pakistani governments on the state of these workers which range from unjust detentions, retention of passports and virtually no rights in service their Saudi overlords.
Imran Khan at the state banquet made a personal plea to MBS to look after the workers in Saudi Arabia and see it to that they get justice in every way. As a gesture MBS immediately the following day announced a full pardon and released for over 2000 workers in Saudi jails. There are approximately three thousand Pakistani prisoners in Saudi Arabia. MBS went further and said he could not say no to Khan and Pakistan – and that he would from now on be the Pakistani Ambassador in Saudi Arabia.
The visit has gone a long way to reset the balance in relations. While Pakistan shall struggle to justify a balance of relationships in the Middle East – evidence thus far shows Khan and his government are not taking sides. Khan has also shown closeness to Qatar and Turkey despite tensions between the two states and the MBS & MBZ duo.
Pakistan is also providing strategic security agreements to Doha for the world cup, and Turkey remains a strategic ally. Imran although yet to visit Tehran has said at no point shall Pakistan turn against Iran and will work closely, a state visit is on the cards this year.
While the Saudis called Iran the leading state sponsor of terror while in Islamabad – Pakistan, despite recent border tensions, says it was offering full cooperation to Iran after the attack on Iranian forces last week.
Pakistan is refusing to be drawn into the Saudi-Iran spat under the Khan government while at the same time the Saudis and MBS are offering mediation between India and Pakistan to calm recent tensions.
Khan's charms have worked well on the Saudis, and the relationship is more balanced than ever, but how Pakistan will benefit is anyone's guess. Only time shall tell whether the Saudi investment in Pakistan is one-sided or a real reset of equals.
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