“Saudi Arabia has always stood with Pakistan in difficult times and the Pakistani government and its people highly acknowledge it,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on September 23, Saudi National Day.
A month after he was sworn in as prime minister, on September 18, 2018 Khan embarked on his first official visit to Saudi Arabia. He was accompanied by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Finance Minister Asad Umar, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Adviser on Commerce Abdul Razzak Dawood. The visit came days after the Saudi information minister visited Pakistan and met with Khan and other top civil and military officials. Khan’s choice of Saudi Arabia for his first official visit, concurrent with comments from his finance minister, led to much conjecture that the trip was actually a cover for a larger purpose — to seek a significant loan to avoid a complete IMF bailout.
In his first speech as prime minister, Khan bemoaned Pakistan’s financial situation, saying “never in Pakistan’s history have we faced such difficult economic circumstances.” The country’s fiscal deficit inflated to 6.6 percent of gross domestic product in the 2017-2018 financial year. The idea that Islamabad would turn to Riyadh was very much predicted. After all, back in 2014, Saudi Arabia had loaned Pakistan $1.5 billion just six months after Islamabad’s last bailout from the IMF.
It seems the trip was very much successful. Although details were scant, the very fact that Saudi Arabia assured “their maximum assistance” to the new prime minister suggested that the two sides had reached some kind of understanding. Khan noted that a new chapter of bilateral cooperation had been opened — one that would benefit the entire region.
Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said on September 20 that Saudi Arabia is the first country that Pakistan has invited to become a third partner in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the projects that Saudi Arabia will be investing in will be worked out during the Saudi delegation’s visit, scheduled for the first week of October. No formal statements have been made from either Saudi Arabia or China in this regard.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have always enjoyed close relations, primarily because of religious ties. Both countries are affiliated with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). During his tenure, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had established favorable relations with senior members of the Saudi royal family. The Saudis have been very generous when it comes to providing aid to Pakistan. For example, when a devastating earthquake hit Balochistan in 2005, Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan with $10 million in humanitarian aid. Moreover, when floods swept across Pakistan in 2010 and 2011, Saudi Arabia granted Pakistan $170 million for relief operations and reconstruction activities in the affected areas.
It is also important to note that currently an estimated 1.9 million Pakistanis reside in Saudi Arabia. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are major providers of jobs for Pakistanis abroad – remittance payments being a key source of foreign currency for the Pakistani treasury. On the trade front, many efforts have been made. Pakistan’s main imports from Saudi Arabia consists of crude oil and oil-based products. In return, Pakistan’s export include rice, meat products, spices, textiles, chemicals, footwear, and leather goods. The total value of bilateral trade is around $2.5 billion. In January 2018, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan pledged to strengthen their economic ties with a preferential trade agreement that would fit in with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030.
This is not to say that there haven’t been hiccups along the road. One such bump was in 2015 when, due to domestic constraints, Pakistan did not send its troops to fight in the Yemen war. Despite this, Pakistan participated in exercise North Thunder, which took place in northern Saudi Arabia, along with 20 other Arab and Muslim countries in March 2016. Moreover, General Raheel Sharif, the former chief of army staff of the Pakistan Army, was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance — an announcement which raised many eyebrows and debate within and outside the country. In February 2018, the Pakistan army sent a contingent of troops to help secure the borders of Saudi Arabia. Despite Khan’s party being a key reason why troops were not sent to Yemen in 2015, he has followed the official Pakistani narrative and spoken out against the Houthis, stating that Pakistan “always stands by Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudi-Pakistani relationship has not always been even-handed — the tilt being in favor of the Saudis, which is understandable when one party is on the receiving end of aid. The Saudis have always treated Pakistan with an air of contempt. This can be showcased in the statement made by the current Saudi Foreign Minister Adel el Jubeir, when he stated that that Saudi Arabia is not just an observer but an actual participant in Pakistani affairs.
Can Khan can do anything different from his predecessors?
First, it would be good for Khan to focus on alleviating the sufferings of the Pakistani expat community in Saudi Arabia. Except for addressing workers in Jeddah during this trip, no mention of this issue was made during any of the meetings. However, on the same day, almost 100 Pakistani men were deported from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the question of indiscriminate beheadings by Saudi Arabia also needs to be addressed.
Second, despite all the bold statements in favor of Iran, Khan has still managed to keep up the “Saudi First” approach of his predecessors. Thus, he is in a good position to convince Riyadh that it does not have to be an “either/or” relationship with Iran.
What will Khan do and where will Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations go from here? Only time will tell. The issues remain the same. The question is whether the new government will be able to put these issues on the table and whether on at least humanitarian grounds Khan will be able to deliver.
Arhama Siddiqa is a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter: @arhama_siddiqa