EDITORIAL: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud led a delegation to Islamabad for talks with Pakistan on taking the two countries' bilateral relations to new heights. Although these relations have traditionally been very close, particularly where geo-politics is concerned, in recent years they have also encountered some turbulence. On the issue of the Yemen war for example, Pakistan's parliament did not accede to the Saudi request for military assistance in its campaign against the Houthis. Pakistan's refusal helped keep it out of a potential sectarian cauldron, but annoyed the Saudis. That may be why Riyadh did not immediately supported Pakistan's position on India's illegal annexation of Held Kashmir. Pakistan has also hesitated to follow the lead of a growing number of Arab countries recognising Israel and establishing relations with the Zionist state that oppresses the Palestinians. But when Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan visited Saudi Arabia in May 2021, the atmosphere changed and in fact improved beyond even the traditional friendly relations. During that visit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the Pakistani PM signed an agreement setting up the Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council (SP-SCC). Under this new framework, both countries seek to switch from a primarily geo-political relationship to one that prioritises geo-economics, a change Pakistan is currently pursuing generally. Of course, as Prince Faisal pointed out, even geo-economics requires security and stability. To that end, the two sides have agreed to work closely together on regional issues such as Kashmir, Palestine and Yemen. The discussions in Islamabad also took notice of the situation in Afghanistan. The Pakistani side is inviting Saudi Arabia to partake of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) too. And Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi did not forget to mention Saudi help in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) proceedings during a joint press conference with the Saudi prince.
Pakistan has traditionally largely been seen through a strategic geo-political lens by Riyadh. This flowed naturally from the fact that Pakistan's battle-hardened military is the largest Muslim army in the region. It may be recalled that Pakistani troops rescued the Khana-i-Kaaba from the Islamic militants who had seized it briefly. Otherwise too, Pakistan's military has been viewed by Riyadh as a reliable go to partner in times of trouble. However, this dominantly strategic relationship is now on the cusp of a change towards greater engagement in economic development, trade, etc. Saudi Arabia being one of the largest producers and exporters of oil in the world possesses enormous wealth for its own and the region's development. Apart from this, Pakistani expatriates and labour, numbering currently around two million, have contributed to Saudi Arabia's development of an alternate economy in anticipation of when the oil runs out. Unfortunately, because of the corona pandemic and the travel restrictions imposed in its wake, some 400,000 Pakistani workers are stuck here because they cannot go back to their jobs in Saudi Arabia; a result of Riyadh's not recognising the Chinese vaccines as valid. This implies that Pakistanis who have received the Chinese jabs at home would have to spend time in quarantine if and when they return to Saudi Arabia. This not many of them can afford. The issue was raised by PM Imran Khan in his meeting with Prince Faisal. It should not be forgotten that these Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are a source of precious foreign exchange, which has been helping to keep our external current account above water. Hopefully, in the restored atmosphere of bonhomie between the two traditional allies, this matter too may find some mutually acceptable solution.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021