Why Saudi Arabia’s road to Asia runs through Pakistan

As both Riyadh and Islamabad have identified terrorism as their common enemy, it calls for constant cooperation on security and political moderation

Ehtesham Shahid
Ehtesham Shahid
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Even before Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman landed in Islamabad on Sunday, to kick off his first official trip to Asia, over 100,000 Pakistanis had already reached Saudi Arabia to perform the yearly pilgrimage of Hajj. Call it symbolic, symbiotic or complementary, this is one instance of a long and unique relationship that has existed between the two countries.

The mutual interests of Riyadh and Islamabad converge in numerous areas. If Pakistan’s need for energy is critical and longstanding, the presence of over 1.5 million Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia makes it mutually beneficial. They have both identified terrorism as their common enemy, which calls for constant cooperation on security and political moderation. Collaboration on this front is likely to get a boost with a visit of this kind.

The visit throws up an interesting match-up of leaderships on either side. The world’s youngest defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been steering Saudi Arabia’s renewed focus on domestic reforms and is attempting to redefine the country’s relations abroad. On this occasion, he is engaging with a prime minster in Pakistan who has spent almost a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Notwithstanding the ebb and flow of Saudi-Pakistan relations, and the thick and thin of his own political career, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is bound to give Riyadh the special status that it deserves. Sharif also holds the foreign minister’s portfolio in this current dispensation, which makes his position even more unique.

In cosying up further to Saudi Arabia, Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to face resistance from the country’s powerful nuclear-armed military, which is known to hold sway in matters beyond its jurisdiction. Reports emerging from Islamabad said that the Saudi crown prince held a meeting with Nawaz Sharif in the presence of Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif.

In cosying up further to Saudi Arabia, Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to face resistance from the country’s powerful nuclear-armed military, which is known to hold sway in matters beyond its jurisdiction

Ehtesham Shahid

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Many analysts expected Saudi-Pakistan relations to take a major jolt after the Pakistani parliament voted not to actively participate in Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen. However, subsequent developments suggest this hasn’t been the case and the ongoing two-day visit is likely to bring things further back on track.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role as the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Council for Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) is likely to dominate economic cooperation between the two sides. There are areas such as food security where the two sides have cooperated in the past and should continue to work for mutual benefit.

Saudi Arabia has provided generous humanitarian aid to Pakistan over the years and is likely to continue this process. Bilateral trade has also been on the rise in recent years although there still remain areas in which more can be done. The balance of trade is in favor of Saudi Arabia as Pakistan imports most of its oil from the kingdom.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan is also significant because his next stop is going to be China, with which Pakistan enjoys an excellent relationship. One reason attributed to Beijing’s prolonged engagement with Pakistan has been its desire to open up access to the Gulf. This visit could further cement ties on this front and open up more possibilities.

Saudi Arabia has chosen to look at its relations with Asia in the light of rapidly changing geopolitics in the region and beyond. Under these circumstances, it makes sense for Riyadh to start with countries closer to home, which helps build bridges with Asian giants.

Pakistan provides a stepping stone for Riyadh’s “look east” strategy and the country seems eager to tap into this opportunity. If this visit adds a few more layers to this already multifaceted relationship, then both sides would indeed stand to benefit from it.

Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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