InternationalVolume 14 Issue # 14

Saudi Arabia’s package for Pakistan

Pakistan has gained immensely after the historic visit of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to Pakistan. More than 2,000 Pakistani workers languishing in Saudi jails have been released. The Saudi government has also included Pakistan in its “Road to Makkah” project, allowing pilgrims to undergo immigration clearance at Pakistani airports before leaving for Haj. The Haj quota for Pakistan has also been increased from 184,210 to 200,000.

These are a big relief for the people of Pakistan. The release of over 2,000 people from Saudi jails has won the hearts of thousands of families. The immigration facility in Pakistan means Pakistani Hajis, who mostly are old, will not have to stand in queues for hours in Saudi Arabia. The increase in the Haj quota is also a welcome development. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Islamabad has approved a drastic cut in visa fees for Pakistanis who want to visit the kingdom. The fee for a single-entry visit visa has now been reduced from 2,000 Saudi riyal to SAR338 (from US$533 to $90). While, the fee for a multiple-entry visit visa has also been reduced from SAR3,000 to SAR675 (from $800 to $180). The steps mean the Saudi government values its ties with the people of Pakistan. Besides, $20b investment agreements were also signed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during the crown prince’s visit.

Pakistan accorded an unprecedented welcome to the crown prince and bestowed him its highest civilian award, gave him a gold-plated gun, and declared a public holiday in honor of his two-day visit to Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan broke protocol to personally drive him to his official residence. It was shocking for the Western media, which has turned against him over the killing of a Saudi journalist. MBS won the hearts of the people of Pakistan when he said “consider me Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. According to the Time, MBS has been shunned by much of the world after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, which the CIA concluded he had ordered. A-list executives pulled out of his Riyadh investment forum (dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’), street protests greeted his arrival in Tunisia in November, and there were reports Morocco’s King Mohammed VI snubbed him on a visit to the North African country. However, that wasn’t the case in Pakistan, which bestowed its highest civilian award on the young Saudi prince. MBS’s visit to Islamabad is widely regarded as an attempt to repair his tarnished credentials as an international statesman. But Saudi Arabia’s investment in Pakistan is more than just a PR exercise.

Historically known for spending lavishly to win hearts and minds, the Saudi Kingdom now faces financial constraints of its own. It urgently needs to diversify its oil-dependent economy. “The largesse that the Saudis were able to afford in the 80s and 90s, we haven’t seen recently, and we definitely haven’t seen it under MBS,” says Andreas Krieg, a Middle East security expert at King’s College, London. The pledged $20 billion is not just “a bailout they do because they like the Pakistanis,” he says. Instead there is oversight to ensure investments are “sustainable and will actually have returns in the future.” Some $8 billion of the funds pledged to Pakistan have been earmarked for the construction of an oil refinery at Gwadar Port, the jewel in the crown of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and an area in which Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbor UAE has also invested. With Beijing set to pump some $62 billion into the economic corridor under its transnational Belt and Road Initiative, Saudi stands to massively increase its own oil export market in Pakistan, the report said.

Few days before the visit of the crown prince, Iran blamed Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries for a deadly suicide attack on its troops. Revolutionary Guards Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari accused “Pakistan’s security forces” of the attack on the Iranian armed forces – which left 27 people dead – and demanded Islamabad take action against the perpetrators or face “retaliation”. He blamed Sunni extremist group Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”) as being responsible for the attack. “If (the Pakistan government) does not punish them, we will retaliate against this anti-revolutionary force, and whatever Pakistan sees will be the consequence of its support for them,” he warned. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei linked the perpetrators of the attack to “the spying agencies of some regional and trans-regional countries”. Revolutionary Guards troops travelling on a bus were targeted by a suicide bomber in the volatile southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, bordering Pakistan. It was one of the deadliest attacks on the Iranian security forces in recent years and came just days after Tehran held celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has offered Iran cooperation in investigations into the deadly bombing. In a telephonic conversation with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, Qureshi condemned the attack and expressed Islamabad’s readiness for cooperation against the militants who have been targeting Iranian troops in the region bordering the two countries. The area has in the past witnessed several incidents and Pakistan had helped Iran recover some of the guards abducted by Jaish al-Adl in October last year.

Some experts fear the establishment of a Saudi refinery in Gwadar will also sow seeds of discontent between Pakistan and Iran. Tempers have been running high in Tehran after the attack on its troops and India has tried to cash in on Iranian grievances. Iran summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to its foreign ministry to hand over Tehran’s protest over the attack. Iranian Ambassador in Pakistan Mehdi Honardoost also called on representatives of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan and Iran should investigate the incident, so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice. However, Iran’s threats are regrettable as it cannot blame Pakistan for an act of non-state actors who are active in border areas between the two countries. The Saudi investment is highly welcome, but Pakistan will have to preserve good relations with Iran to maintain sectarian harmony in the country.