Countries form relations on the basis of geography, common languages, race or interests. They develop friendships on grounds of mutual interests and diplomatic bonds. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may have none of the above; they apparently share no territories or languages, but both are tied together through promises and a relationship that has been so developed by the Kingdom and Islamabad over the years. The ties between the two can be summed up in three words: unmatchable, undetachable and undoable. Both have the commonality of unprecedented magnitude – one is the ‘center of Islam’ and the other is the ‘citadel of Islam’. This is ultimate, final and maximum.
The visit of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan in February was a display of the same love and affection. It has been regarded as an overwhelming success by the world community, international and national media, the government and opposition parliamentarians, the intelligentsia and general public. The social media in Pakistan and the Gulf states had been trending with the highlights of the Crown Prince’s highly significant engagements in Islamabad. The Crown Prince called himself Pakistan’s Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, while Prime Minister Imran Khan commented that His Highness was so popular in Pakistan that if he contests election here, he would win more votes than him.
As a goodwill gesture, the Crown Prince announced the release of over 2,000 prisoners incarcerated in Saudi jails on a request for consideration by the Prime Minister. Importantly, the visit led to the signing of seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) valued at around $20 billion with half the amount earmarked for setting up a refinery in Gwadar. A Supreme Coordination Council (SCC), designed to ensure a structured mechanism for the implementation of the MoUs, co-chaired by the Crown Prince and Prime Minister held its inaugural session in Islamabad.
Besides his meetings with the President and the Prime Minister, the Crown Prince granted a separate call on the Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and discussed with him matters of mutual interest. On the sidelines of the Saudi delegation’s engagements, the Saudi Information Minister, Dr. Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad, spared some time to visit the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate. The arrival of the Crown Prince was so enthusiastically received that the Islamabad metropolitan gave a grand look of embellishment and architectural decorations: colourful banners with ‘Hayya Hayya Marhaba Marhaba’ and ‘Ahlan wa Sahlan’ written on them were hanging all around, on highways, along pavements, bridges and buildings. People representing all provinces gathered on the sides of the roads, waving flags and singing welcome songs to greet the crown prince. Flanked by his cabinet members and Chief of the Army Staff, Prime Minister Imran Khan warmly welcomed the honorable guest at the Noor Khan Air Base and drove the guest to Islamabad himself, where a smartly turned out contingent presented the dignitary with guard of honour.
For Pakistanis, on their part, no love is greater than the love of Makkah Mukarrama and Madina Munawwara, the two holy cities. The Saudi government and people are fully aware of this unique love of fellow Pakistanis, one they recognize and duly honor. In words of late King Faisal, “Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are tied in a religious, spiritual and valuable relationship. This relationship is not for temporary benefits, but Saudis and Pakistani brothers are like one body. All Muslims are part of one body. If one feels pain, the entire body will suffer.”
This monumental love has left an everlasting mark of a neverending friendship, one which can be proven in terms of various roads, number of educational institutes, hospitals and infrastructural installations which have been named after the Harmain Shareefain or heads of the Kingdom. Saudabad locality in Karachi named after King Saud, Lyallpur renamed as Faisalabad after King Faisal, and Faisal Mosque – one of the biggest mosques in the world – under the foothills of Margallas speak of the bond that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have solidified over the years. Faisal Avenue and Faisal Base of Pakistan Air Force in Karachi, King Abdullah Teaching Hospital in Mansehra and King Abdullah University in Muzaffarabad are among the various tokens of love between the two. A more recent example is the recently launched King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, which is set up to support Pakistan in the education and health sectors.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan Movement
If time is a measure of historical compulsion then the history of both the countries has its chronological narration, which is also reckoned with ascendency and positivism. Thanks to the successive Custodians of Holy Places and thanks to the people of Saudi Arabia, they have done everything towards increasingly strengthening this relationship and towards materializing the status of two closest allies. His Highness’ arrival in Islamabad was not unusual. Pakistan happens to be his second home, as he mentioned being the ambassador of Pakistan in Saudi Arabia. Earlier, in the capacity of Deputy Crown Prince, he had already visited Pakistan. The Crown Prince falls in the list of the Kings of the Kingdom that have long upheld the tradition of visiting Pakistan. The people of Pakistan have the honour of having welcomed King Saud, the founder of post-Balkan Saudi Arabia in 1954, and King Faisal in 1974. The incumbent King of Saudi Arabia His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, too, has special feelings for Pakistan and prefers to extend every kind of assistance towards strengthening the deep-rooted ties with Islamabad. Saudi Crown Princes, right from Khalid bin Abdul Aziz, Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to Mohammed bin Salman have honored Pakistan with their visits as a gesture of goodwill and token of love for their Pakistani brethren. This visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was in continuation of the same.
The history of Saudi-Pak friendship dates back to Riyadh and Saudi people’s support for Pakistan Movement right from the passing of Pakistan Resolution in 1940. In 1946, Muhammad Ali Jinnah sent the All India Muslim League’s Ispahani mission to the United Nations (UN) to seek diplomatic support for the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of Indian subcontinent. The Indian National Congress tried to use all means of obstructing the Ispahani mission that was to interact with the UN delegates. Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, who was heading the Saudi delegation at that time, extended all kinds of support to facilitate the Muslim League delegation by inviting them to an official reception hosted in honor of all the UN delegates and provided them the opportunity to present their case, thus laying the foundation stone for strong Saudi-Pak relations.
Saudi Arabia was among the first few countries which recognized the independence of Pakistan. Arab merchants, who had long been settled in Bombay and Calcutta, migrated to Pakistan, especially Karachi, along with other Muslim families. King Saud’s visit in 1954 was considered a great support as it laid the basis of a long-lasting relationship, paving way for a joint effort to help the newly created country towards building and strengthening it, both economically and strategically.
Kashmir Cause, Nuclear Pakistan and the Afghan War
Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir at Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) level as well as other international forums. During the 1965 and 1971 Wars, Saudi Arabia extended economic and diplomatic support to Pakistan. In his recent interview, the Saudi Foreign Minister categorically refused to condemn Pakistan over the Pulwama incident saying, “Unless there is concrete evidence available, Pakistan cannot be blamed.” When in the 1970s India threatened to go nuclear, it was Saudi Arabia that stepped up to provide moral, diplomatic and economic support to strengthen Pakistan’s conventional defence. The Kingdom was also instrumental in organizing the 1974 Islamic Summit in Lahore, in which all the top leaders of Muslim world participated.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 70s, Saudi Arabia was the first to come to Pakistan’s help in its bid to defend its territorial integrity. Not only did it help Pakistan in hosting over 4 million Afghan refugees, but also regularly supplied food items, especially meat of sacrificial animals on Eid-ul-Azha each year. Similarly, when Pakistan decided to conduct nuclear tests in response to India’s in May 1998, the Pakistan government took the Saudi leadership in confidence in order to guard against possible international sanctions. Saudi Arabia was quick to give Pakistan assurance. Besides other economic assistance, it supplied 50,000 barrels of crude oil free of cost daily for one year. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in October 2005, Saudi Arabia was among the leading contributors in Pakistan’s rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, and till this day continues to build education and health facilities in the earthquake affected areas.
Development of Defence and Strategic Relations with Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia enjoys special status in Pakistan’s foreign policy as the country takes upon itself both a written and an unwritten responsibility of safeguarding the holy cities of Makkah and Madina against any kind of external aggression. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan agreed to help each other in times of need. In 1979, when miscreants took control of Kaa’ba, Pakistani commandoes were rushed to Saudi Arabia who, through a swift and safe surgical operation, helped restore the Saudi authorities’ writ. Under the agreement, Pakistan started training the Saudi forces; selected batches of the Royal Forces’ officers receive training from Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, Pakistan Navy Academy in Karachi and Pakistan Air Force Academy Risalpur. Around 20,000 Pakistani troops remained deployed in the late 70s and early 80s in Tabuk and other areas in a joint effort to thwart any possible external aggression. During the First Gulf War in 1991, the Pakistani troops were there to defend Saudi borders. At present, too, a training mission of Pakistan Army is in Saudi Arabia, which is working on an advisory and training role to enhance the combat efficiency of Saudi law enforcement agencies. According to a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) study, both the allies have institutionalized their strategic relations under which both the countries will be at liberty to pursue their respective national aims and objectives without compromising on each other’s interests.
Following the royal visit, a new warmth has been witnessed in the relationship between the two countries. Pakistan supports the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 that is aimed at liberating the Saudi economy from dependence on foreign oil producing companies, eradicating corruption, granting basic rights to women in the society and provision of jobs to Saudi nationals. Pakistan welcomes King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda of reforms. In a recent development Saudi Arabia has appointed a female ambassador in the United States for the first time in the Saudi history. Likewise, the Saudi government, especially the Crown Prince, recognizes the positive role of 2.7 million Pakistanis in the Kingdom’s development.
Most importantly, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit has generated extremely positive public opinion, which emphasizes that irrespective of any geopolitical considerations that may have accounted for the largesse of the Saudis towards Pakistan in recent months (USD 3 billion parked at the State Bank of Pakistan for one year for balance of payment support, another three billion dollars earmarked for deferred oil facility payment for a period of three years, USD 20 billion in MoUs as well as convincing its close ally UAE to match its assistance). The very scale of the assistance reflects the success of our foreign policy.
Beside other positive outcomes, the Crown Prince’s visit will hopefully give impetus to Pakistan’s relations with other countries, dispelling the negative impressions which had been wrongly projected, especially by the Indian media, that Pakistan was being isolated. In the words of Mehbooba Mufti, “Indian government wrongly propagates that Pakistan has been isolated. Pakistan has successfully developed friendly ties with America, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and other countries, which Modi sarkar is wrongly projecting otherwise.” Instead, she said, in the wake of current war-mongering over Pulwama incident, “India is facing isolation, not Pakistan. Nobody is buying India’s pre-poll anti-Pakistan rhetoric.” Coinciding with the Crown Prince’s visit, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are scheduled to visit Pakistan, which would be a great achievement for Pakistan on the diplomatic front.
Such a successful foreign policy indicates the confluence of shared interests between Riyadh and Islamabad, with other Gulf states and regional countries. The formal launch of Saudi-Pak SCC to focus on economy, security and energy gave a new dimension to the bilateral ties of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. With a focus on building long-lasting economic ties, the Saudi investment announced by the Crown Prince into Pakistan’s economy would help kick-start several high-profile development projects. A joint press statement issued in Islamabad noted that the Crown Prince emphasized the potential of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, he stated, would contribute to the development and prosperity of the region. Last year in September Prime Minister Imran Khan had invited the Saudis to participate in CPEC projects. “This is for the first time we have a relationship that is developing into other spheres and it is just the beginning,” the Prime Minister said in a press statement just before the departure of the royal guest at Nur Khan Air Base. The Crown Prince reposed full confidence in the leadership of Pakistan and said, “We feel hope in Pakistan and we believe in Pakistan’s future.” He said that he looked forward to the day when Pakistan turned into a big economy in the region owing to its huge potential. He further stated that the $20 billion investment in the first phase would definitely grow in numbers in the years ahead and would prove beneficial for both the countries. “What we did today was just the beginning,” the Crown Prince said before his departure.
Some Misperceptions about Saudi-Pak Defence Cooperation
Recently, the role of Pakistan military came in the limelight; a number of news channels and newspapers, mostly Indian, remained busy in creating disinformation over Pakistan’s strategic relations with Saudi Arabia. This is, in one way or the other, indicative of the fact that the functioning and role of Pakistan Army in Saudi Arabia is grossly misperceived. On February 19, 2018 Pakistan’s Defence Minister gave a briefing to the Senate regarding cooperation between the two countries and the terms of engagement under which the troops were to be sent. During a meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince on February 1, 2018 and with the Saudi Vice President of the Council of Ministers on February 2, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa discussed matters of mutual interest and military ties between Riyadh and Islamabad. A total of 1,600 troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia while 1000 Saudi troops are receiving training; another 1,000 troops were also sent, bringing the tally to 2,600.
“The apprehension that our troops will get entangled in the war [in Yemen] is incorrect. The deployment remains within the remits of agreement, under which our forces will help train the Saudi troops.”
A February 15, 2018 press release issued by ISPR has also said that a Pakistan Army contingent will be stationed in Saudi Arabia on a training and advisory mission. The announcement followed a meeting between the Saudi Ambassador and COAS at the General Headquarters. Pakistan has already had troops in Saudi Arabia under a 1982 bilateral agreement. Such an arrangement is part of the 1970s deal; Islamabad signed defence protocols with several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Jordon and UAE under which Pakistan Armed Forces’ troops were dispatched to these countries to impart professional training. A majority of the officials of the armed forces were sent to these countries on deputation for a tenure of two to three years. At present, Pakistan is one of the 41 members of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in a TV program, told the anchor in categorical terms that Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are not directed against any country. “We have very good brotherly relations with Iran and during my telephonic talk with the Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, I offered him cooperation in investigations into the deadly bombing of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bus.”
All this is indicative of the fact that Pakistan’s military capabilities qualify for playing a balancing role in the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular. When a rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran occurred over the terrorism charge against a prominent Shia leader, Pakistan played an intermediary role and eased tensions.
Conclusively, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have revisited the core foundation of the relationship, and broadened it with a renewed vigor. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have championed transformative visions for their respective country’s future under the Naya Pakistan and Vision 2030 initiatives. Pakistan is not only linking itself southwards and southwestwards but also northwards and northeastwards. From Russia to Brazil and Africa, from China to Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states, and from Turkey to Malaysia and Indonesia, it is aiming to expand its diplomatic, economic and strategic ties, which would certainly herald a new era of Pakistan’s prosperity and regional uplift, as the Crown Prince foretold and the world’s renowned think tanks foresee.
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