Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 7th 2021 embarked on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia in an effort to improve strained relations that received severe setback in the recent past. Efforts were being made to narrow the differences and bring the relationship back on track and the breakthrough occurred in March 2021 when the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman called Imran Khan over the telephone and invited him for an official visit. Prior to Imran Khan’s departure Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa reached Riyadh apparently to lay the groundwork for the much needed reset of bilateral relations.
Also Ahead of the official visit, the Government of Pakistan approved the establishment of the Pakistan-Saudi Supreme Coordination Council to “remove hurdles” to investment deals signed during the 2019 visit of Mohammed Bin Salman to Pakistan.
As expected, the discussions during the visit were focused on economic engagement including job opportunities for Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia, Saudi investment in Pakistan and the mutual desire to strengthen political, defense and security ties. According to official Saudi Press Agency the two sides concluded agreements addressing crime and the treatment of criminals, and signed two memorandums of understanding on combating drug trafficking, and on financing energy, water and infrastructure projects.
The seemingly time-tested Pak-Saudi relationship after decades of close political, military and economic cooperation suffered several fractures in recent years. Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi-led military alliance in Yemen’s ongoing war is said to be the single-most important reason behind strained relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. Relations continued to worsen when Pakistan chose to take a neutral stance as the Qatar-Saudi crisis erupted in 2017. The situation further aggravated with the reluctance of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to do more in the Kashmir issue that by all accounts has remained the key policy issue for Pakistan. It pushed Pakistan to seek a rival summit meeting that would have bypassed the OIC and was widely perceived as a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia’s claim of leadership role in the Muslim world.
Saudi Arabia has been known for adopting a conservative foreign policy highlighted by restraint in expressing tough open reaction to unfavorable challenges, and in this case too, it decided to avoid castigating Pakistan publicly. Instead, Riyadh responded by withdrawing $1bn of a $3bn interest-free loan it extended to Pakistan in 2018, and declined to renew an expired multi-billion-dollar oil credit facility for Islamabad. Though Pakistan took urgent steps to mend fences and even dispatched General Bajwa on a damage control mission to Riyadh, the rifts remained unresolved with an apparent understanding on both sides to avoid further escalation and to settle for a status quo of ties for the time being. This year however, amid closed-door talks between Islamabad and Riyadh, Pakistan was relieved of paying back the remaining $1 billion of the $3 billion loan and talks on establishing an oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the port city of Gwadar with Saudi investment resumed.
The upheaval in Riyadh-Islamabad relations facilitated Pakistan’s rival, India, to make easier inroads in the Persian Gulf region, as it strengthened ties both with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates especially in defense and security domains. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Indian infrastructure and oil projects. In fiscal year 2019-20, bilateral trade between India and Saudi Arabia was valued at US $33.09 billion. During this period, India's imports from Saudi Arabia reached US $26.84 billion and exports to Saudi Arabia stood at US $6.25 billion. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that it is unwilling to do more in favor of Pakistan in Kashmir issue as it is keen not to irritate India, a rising global power and a key business partner as well as importer of Saudi oil.
For Pakistan, Saudi Arabia continues to be an important economic and strategic player. With more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia sending home around US$6 billion annually, the kingdom remains the largest source of overseas remittances to Pakistan. Pakistan’s annual bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia stands at about US $4 billion, mostly consisting of Saudi oil imports. On the defense and security side, Pakistan has maintained close defense ties with Saudi Arabia and has deployed around 2,000 troops to the kingdom on security and training missions. Pakistan’s former Chief of the Army Staff retired General Raheel Sharif is currently the head of a 41-nation Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to fight terrorism.
At the other end and against the backdrop of Biden administration’s less resilient stance towards Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is faced with little option but to re-examine its foreign policy and to embark on new initiatives to reduce tensions emanating from its ill-fated regional and international conducts. In this calculus, Saudi rulers may not find it feasible to ignore any potential ally especially in the Muslim world and as such, rapprochement with Pakistan and extension of invitation to Imran Khan to visit the Kingdom gained logic.
Notwithstanding all the mutual efforts to reset the once exemplary ties back to its former glory the relationship is unlikely to return to the way it was before. With the emerging priorities of both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis the changing global environment in sight, they have to settle for mutual tolerance if accommodation proves to be unattainable at the moment. If their relationship could not stand as stable as it used to be, they may choose to focus on some remaining shared goals to keep the ties on a level plain.
Hossein Ebrahim Khani
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)