By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Feb 11, 2014

pak-army-chief-awarded-crown-prince-salmanSince the beginning of New Year, there is a flurry of high profile cross visits between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud is soon coming to Pakistan on a three-day official visit. Deputy Defence Minister has just concluded his tour; and last month Saudi foreign minister was in Islamabad, followed by a 17-member Saudi defence delegation on a three-day exploratory trip to Pakistan for identifying areas of cooperation. It is indeed a good omen for an already deep rooted bilateral relationship. These high profile visits mark renewed warmth in ties between Riyadh and Islamabad which may usher a new direction in relations between the two countries. The Saudis have always said they have a special relationship with Pakistan. They consider Pakistan a second line of defence, to be called up in times of difficulty. There is a lot of significance to these visits. They have come after a long time.

Most recently, HRH Prince Salman bin Sultan, who is also his country’s deputy defence minister, was in Islamabad to inaugurate a public welfare project “Centre for Education Research and Social Development” under the auspices of Sultana Foundations, a welfare venture run by his family. While receiving Prince Salman bin Sultan at presidency, the President of Pakistan appreciated the role of Sultana Foundation in education sector in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is a major destination for immigrant Pakistani workers. Presence of 1.5 million Pakistani diaspora has contributed significantly towards development of infrastructure in the kingdom. These overseas Pakistanis are a major source of remittances back home and they act as a bridge between the two countries. Commenting on bilateral ties, the President said that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy close and cordial relations deep rooted in common faith, traditions and commonality of views on all issues of mutual interest and based on mutual trust and understanding. He said that the government of Pakistan desires to further strengthen the strategic partnership and bilateral cooperation in all fields to the mutual benefit of the people of the two countries.

Saudi Deputy Defence Minister showed keen interest in the defence products being produced at Pakistan Defence Industries. He stated that the establishment of Joint Military Co-operation Committee as well as Military Co-operation Committee will prove beneficial forums to improve defence co-operation between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are leading members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Saudi Arabia was one of the strongest supporters of Pakistan during Pakistan’s wars with India, especially opposing the creation of Bangladesh from Pakistan’s eastern wing in 1971. While it supports Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir conflict, it also endorses Indo-Pak peace process. Alongside Pakistan, Saudi Arabia provided extensive financial and political support to the Afghan Mujahedeen fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were the only states to recognise Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  Following the nuclear explosions by Pakistan on May 28, 1998, Saudi Arabia, along with United Arab Emirates, backed Pakistan and congratulated the country for making the “bold decision”. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia supplied 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help Pakistan cope with economic sanctions in the aftermath of nuclear tests.

Pakistan maintains close military ties with Saudi Arabia, providing extensive training support for the Saudi military. During the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, Pakistan sent troops to protect Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has provided extensive religious and educational aid to Pakistan, being a major contributor to the construction of mosques and madrassas (religious seminaries) across Pakistan. Faisal Mosque is the largest mosque of the country; it is dedicated to late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who was a great friend of Pakistan. The major Pakistani city of Lyallpur was also renamed Faisalabad in the honour of King Faisal in 1977. Saudi Arabia is the largest source of petroleum supply for Pakistan. It also supplies extensive financial aid to Pakistan and remittance from Pakistani migrants to Saudi Arabia is a major source of sustaining Pakistan’s foreign currency account at a viable level.

During recent years, both countries have exchanged high-level delegations and developed plans to expand bilateral cooperation in trade, education, real estate, tourism, information technology, communications and agriculture. Saudi Arabia is facilitating the development of trade relations of Pakistan with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, with whom Pakistan is negotiating a free trade agreement.

During his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has discussed, with the Saudi Armed Forces chief General Hussain Bin Abdullah Al Qubayyal and Saudi army chief Lieutenant General Eid Bin Awadh Al Shalwi, the generalities and modalities of a joint military exercise that may take place this year. Such exercises are a regular feature between the three services of the two countries. General Raheel Sharif’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia took place amid the rumours that Saudi Arabia was acting as a mediator between the government and security establishment for General (r) Pervez Musharraf’s ‘safe’ exit from Pakistan to skip the treason trial. In the past, Saudi Arabia has always shown keenness to resolve irritants of domestic politics of Pakistan for the betterment of country. However, this time the Kingdom has made it clear that “it will not interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs.”

During his visit, General Raheel Sharif was conferred King Abdul Aziz Medal of Excellence. He also held separate meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Abdul Rahman Bin Ali Al Rubaian. These meetings focused on defence and security cooperation, regional stability and steps towards strengthening bonds between the two countries. For Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is an important partner in its bid to maintain regional balance in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has been a regular buyer of Pakistani small arms in the past; now it has expressed keen interest in JF-17 Thunder jets. Raheel Sharif’s visit soon after Turki bin Faisal’s trip to Islamabad will further improve close defence and security ties with Pakistan that will help Saudi Arabia maintain its regional dominance with the assistance of an important non-Arab ally. The COAS reiterated goodwill of the government and people of Pakistan, and thanked the Saudi leadership for its support to Pakistan and its armed forces.

Keeping in view Pakistan’s current predicament regarding the unchecked growth of sectarian militancy, Pakistan had asked for Saudi help to deal with sectarianism during Saudi Foreign Minister Turki bin Faisal al Saud’s trip to Islamabad earlier this year. At least 50 percent of the madrassahs in Pakistan are either directly funded by the Saudi government, or by Saudi philanthropists. Therefore, Saudis could significantly help by cutting off funding to those madrassahs that spread extremist or sectarian views.

During his visit, Prince Suleman bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Defence Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif, General Raheel Sharif and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee  General Rashad Mahmood. Prime Minister told the foreign dignitary that in view of current challenges‚ there is a need to further strengthen defence co-operation between the two countries. Prime Minister also appreciated the Saudi government’s role in implementation of the United Nation’s Global Counter Terrorism Strategy. He said Pakistan remains committed to fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, adding that we have suffered enormous human and financial losses in the fight against terrorism. He said that Pakistan has faced a lot of difficulties during the ongoing war on terror and has laid down unprecedented sacrifices. “We have not only lost our brave and valiant soldiers in the line of duty but the civilian population have also suffered immense causalities,” he added. However, he said, these losses have not dented our resolve to fight this menace.

While discussing the regional situation‚ the Prime Minister reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to support the peace process in Afghanistan, adding that Pakistan believes in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, as it is in the interest of the region.  He said Pakistan supports all efforts aimed at strengthening unity among the Islamic countries. The Prime Minister further stated that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy very cordial and brotherly relations based on historic bonds, mutual trust and understanding.

The people of Pakistan highly revere Khadim Al-Harmain Al-Sharifain King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and hold him in the highest esteem. According to a 2013 Pew global opinion poll, Pakistanis hold the most favourable perception of Saudi Arabia, with 95% viewing it favourably and none expressing negative views. Saudi Arabia also sees Pakistan as an important partner in South Asia. The relationship with the Saudi Arabia represents the most important bilateral partnership in the foreign policy of Pakistan.  Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are historically close and extremely friendly. Two countries have always sought to develop extensive commercial, cultural, religious, political, and strategic ties. This trajectory is likely to go forth with added zeal.

Writer is Consultant Policy and Strategic Response, IPRI, and is on the panel of experts CPGS.

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