Pakistan, Saudi Arabia: Walk the Talk, Clear the Mist

“It is vital that we prepare for the vagaries of uncertain future in consort with our trusted and irreplaceable friends”

Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia have traditionally been one of the pillars of Pakistan’s foreign Policy’s edifice. Successive governments arguably, some more than the others have maintained a strategic camaraderie that has withstood the test of time and proved immensely beneficial to both the countries. The recent impudent remarks about KSA thus came as a rude shock to those who are aware of the value of our ties with Saudi Arabia. What makes it even more surprising and implausible is the fact that, collaboration between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was destined to explore new vistas at unprecedented scales following the historic visit by the Saudi Crown Prince early last year. In my view the impasse if one can call it so, has the potential to unravel a strategic relation painstakingly built and nurtured over a long time. In any case such public outbursts bely normal diplomatic courtesy and violate traditional diplomatic principles of circumspection and understanding so very necessary especially dealing with friends. To their credit Saudi Arabia has never made any adverse remarks about Pakistan in press/media. It needs to be underscored that, Islamic Ummah already beset with numerous discords can ill afford a schism between two of its important members. I will attempt to highlight the underpinnings of our relationship and implications of an ill-conceived and wholly unnecessary cause célèbre, dispassionately and realistically. The aim being to chart a course that safeguards our national interests lest we lose a friend whose remit extends in the Gulf, Arab world and beyond.

Pakistan’s ties with KSA are predicated essentially on two main determinants firstly, our exceptional defense collaboration and secondly reverence and esteem attached to the holy land. Therefore, a friendly disposition towards Saudi Arabia is truly reflective of popular aspiration of people of Pakistan. Historically, the relations have been trustworthy and smooth bar a temporary rescission caused as a result of our avowed neutrality over war in Yemen. However, it was largely addressed by a timely policy reset and a flurry of engagements in 2017-18. KSA has always played a key role in helping Pakistan at the times of need and known to have used influence even during Balakot crisis and other stand-offs with India. The crown Prince’s visit last year clearly demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s keen desire to see Pakistan grow stronger particularly economically. Had we followed up more diligently on nearly $40Bn investments announced during the visit, our relations would have become more diverse and robust by now. The opportunity seems to have been all but lost especially in the wake of severe impact of Covid-19 and crash of oil prices on Gulf economies.

Saudi Arabia has a world’s view which we may or not share in its entirety cases in point are Iran, Qatar, Syria, Libya etc. However, what matters to us is that KSA wants a strong, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan and willingly extends political, diplomatic and material support with no strings attached. It is a partnership of mutual respect and congruence of interests, the rhetoric of arm chair intellectuals notwithstanding. The current leadership in Saudi Arabia is dynamic and transforming KSA under vision 2030 while Pakistan too is pursuing a CPEC a flagship project of BRI in a similar timeframe. Therefore, opportunities are plentiful for both Pakistan and KSA, for partnership and establishing strong bonds leveraging each other’s strengths. The erstwhile laid back and notional approach adopted hitherto needs to give way to a responsive, practical and proactive strategy in order to realize true potential of our strategic relations. In my view operationalization of CPEC inter alia is dependent on routing some of the China-Gulf trade through this corridor therefore, maintenance of traditional friendly relations with the Gulf countries is inescapable.

Another aspect of our intrinsic linkage is the fact that KSA is host to the largest Pakistani expatriates for many years. Pakistani professionals are valued for their talent, dedication and contributions to development of KSA as also indeed thousands of unskilled workers for their hard work. Nearly 2.5 million strong Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia remit over $5Bn per annum not to mention the much needed employment for a large community. It is indeed a connection with KSA which is unparalleled and its importance ought to be duly recognized.

It is ironic that KSA is often subjected to ill-informed critique in media in utter disregard to the sensitivities of a brotherly country. Such unwarranted and irresponsible commentary can only create a wedge and mistrust in our relations. God forbid if there is a disagreement for any length of time, the chances of which are very remote, it needs no brains as to which country is in pole position to fill the void. We should also be careful in alluding to alternatives which do not even exist on ground let alone think that they are feasible. While it is true that geopolitical landscape of the world at large and the region is transforming but the pretensions on emergence of some kind of a new block on the horizon is far-fetched. It is vital that we prepare for the vagaries of uncertain future in consort with our trusted and irreplaceable friends.

Foreign policy is about managing and understanding friends’ despite competing interests and varied perceptions at times. It is time to introspect and retrieve the situation lest it spirals out of hand much to the detriment of our national interests. A solid bonding between KSA and Pakistan augurs well for peace and stability in the region and beyond. The global and regional geopolitical landscape is transforming and the Gulf is in the midst of it all. The need is to reinforce common grounds and diversify the spectrum of bilateral relations so very necessary for a strong and durable relation. I am sure Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will continue to be reliable and brotherly friends Insha Allah. The recent visit by the Army Chief has helped remedy the situation which needs to be followed up through political engagements. The Prime minister in his interview has also reiterated the exceptional nature of our relations with KSA. I hope the words will be followed up with actions and strategies to walk the talk to clear the mist.

The writer is former Vice chief of Naval staff and ambassador to Saudi Arabia

The opinions expressed are those of the author’s. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of DesPardes.