Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first official, but sudden visit to Saudi Arabia although was very important in the context of the new government’s foreign policy vision, but was equally important from the standpoint of the government’s evolving strategy to cope with the appalling state of the country’s economy and also the release of incarcerated former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter, Mariam Safdar and son-in-law, Capt. (R) Safdar.
On the part of PM Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led coalition government of Pakistan, it is the dire state of the economy left by the previous government of PML-N which compelled Khan to visit Saudi Arabia. He expected that Riyadh would announce a hefty aid package for Pakistan as indications in this regard were aired by the Saudi leadership, reportedly to provide the PTI government with at least $5 billion through the Riyadh-based Islamic Investment Bank. However, so far the king and his heir- apparent, Muhammad bin Salman, have not announced anything concrete in aid to the PTI government. This may have disheartened Khan. But the visit also seemed to have much to do with the dramatic bailing out of incarcerated former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and son-in-law have been in jail as they were sentenced for several years by a trial court, but on September 19, when PM Khan was in Saudi Arabia, the Islamabad High Court, one of five constitutional courts, ordered interim bail to the prisoners. However, this is a controversial decision. Interestingly, Sharif and his daughter were let temporarily free before the court order by PM Khan’s government on parole to attend the last rites of his wife, in Lahore. During Nawaz’s freedom on parole the Saudi ambassador met Sharif in Lahore at the latter’s residence; the Turkish foreign minister also paid a visit to Sharif. These meetings caused much speculation. The Sharif family has very close connections, including family relations through nuptial ties, with the Saudi royal family and the latter also played a very important role in his release and stopping of his trial by General Musharraf in 1999. So the death of Kulsoom Nawaz, release of Sharif on parole, his, Mariam Sadfar’s and Capt. (R) Safdar’s setting free by the IHC on “frivolous” evidence presented by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) are interlinked. In other words, PM Khan’s sudden, unscheduled visit to Saudi Arabia might have been arranged to pave the way for give-and-take between the government and the Sharif family with the latter readying to a pay huge amount to the national exchequer, obviously secretly, to get their release. It is important to note that NAB, which is the official body which has been filing and pursuing corruption cases against the Sharif family and that, too, on the order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, already has a legal provision for plea-bargaining. Under this provision, anyone accused of corruption could get release after payment of an agreed amount of the misappropriated money. However, Nawaz Sharif would not like to openly go for plea bargaining as it would be politically too damaging for him and his PML-N. Because Sharif and the PML-N leadership have been consistently stating that the case of Avenfield flats against Nawaz Sharif and his children have no legal standing and is based on frivolous and unsubstantiated arguments particularly as NAB could not prove anything against Sharif and his children. This is despite the fact that under the NAB law, the burden of proof to provide a money trail and resources with which property is purchased by an accused, is on the accused and not on NAB.
It is important to note that PM Khan’s Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, who also accompanied him to Saudi Arabia, soon after his return to Pakistan stated that PM Khan’s government would give no concession to Sharif by any means, in any way. At the same time, Fawad also said that the court can give relief to anyone and the government would fully abide by the court’s decisions. This is a very important policy statement by the PTI government, because if Sharif and his family gets any relief from the government, whether through a mutual agreement or understanding reached with other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, this would immensely affect the popularity of PM Khan and the PTI as this would negate the fundamental narrative of the PTI. Any agreement on the pattern of the National Reconciliation Ordinance signed between the General Musharraf regime and the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and some other political leaders and parties, under which corruption cases were set aside against them is not expected after Information Minister Chaudhry’s clarification. It is important to note that the information minister made the clarification when Islamabad, rather the whole country, was abuzz with discussion that Sharif was released at the behest of Saudi Arabia and PM Khan’s visit was arranged for the purpose.
Saudia Arabia’s leadership might have asked PM Khan for a favour with regard to the release of Sharif and his daughter, but as Khan has a reputation for talking straight, he must have candidly told his Saudi hosts that it was not possible for him. In return, the Saudi leadership also seemed to have desisted from making any assistance pledge to the government. Failure to get any concrete financial and economic assistance from Saudi Arabia must have disheartened Khan and would add to his government’s economic woes. At the same time, Khan and his government’s resolve to root out corruption and hold the high and mighty figures of the political and social elite accountable for economic wrongdoings and corruption, may get stronger.
Nevertheless, a very important development during Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia took place and that was Pakistan’s invitation to Riyadh to become part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) worth more than $70 billion, by investing in it particularly through establishing an oil city in Balochistan. Simultaneously, PM Khan also vowed in Saudi Arabia that Pakistan would defend Saudi Arabia against any aggression and, more importantly, that from Yemen-based Huthi rebels. The Saudi Arabian leadership may consider to become part of CPEC, not for the sake of Pakistan, but to off-set arch-rival Iran’s influence in Pakistan and the former’s possible inclusion in CPEC. Anyhow Saudia’s inclusion in the CPEC would be beneficial to Pakistan as Riyadh could easily transport its oil to the proposed “oil city” in Balochistan and then onwards through pipelines to western China.