A New Era in Pak-Saudi Ties
Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s arrival to Pakistan was nothing short of a royal affair. A formation of JF-17 thunder jets and F-16 fighter jets escorted the plane of the Crown Prince after its entry into the Pakistani airspace. On arrival, the Crown Prince was given a 21-gun salute. He was received by Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The premier even drove him to PM House. In all, there was much pomp and circumstance as the prince was feted by the civilian and military elite of this country.
The less than 24-hour stay of the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) in Islamabad has been hailed as an overwhelming success by all – opposition parliamentarians, the media as well as the general public. The public’s reaction was gauged from what was trending in the social media by Prime Minister Imran Khan prompting him to state that MBS would win more votes than him after he stated that he (MBS) was Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and announced the release of over 2,107 Pakistani prisoners presently incarcerated in Saudi jails on a request for consideration by the Prime Minister.
More importantly, the visit, as was being projected, led to the signing of seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) valued at around 20 billion dollars with half the amount earmarked for setting up a refinery in Gwadar. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi informed the media that a Supreme Coordination Council (SCC) co-chaired by MBS and Prime Minister Khan, with the necessary powers to swiftly deal with any implementation delays, held its inaugural session in Islamabad. The SCC is designed to ensure structured institutionalized mechanism for the implementation of the MoUs – a mechanism that would not only formulate an action plan but would also oversee progress on the MoUs.
A joint press statement issued by the Foreign Office noted that the Crown Prince emphasized the potential of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, he stated, would contribute to the development and prosperity of the region. The CPEC, a 60 plus billion dollar package extended by China in April 2015 during the visit of President Xi Jinping to Islamabad was also widely hailed in Pakistan, however, it was subsequently opposed not only by India but also by the US with its Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning Pakistan that an International Monetary Fund bailout package would be opposed by the US if it would be used to repay China, implying thereby that CPEC funds were loans and not investment. There was also domestic criticism on the basis of what was contended at the time that the projects’ focus on Punjab and, sadly, the then PML-N administration consistently failed to satisfy the opposition on this count.
Be that as it may, Imran Khan invited the Saudis to participate in CPEC projects in September 2018 – an invitation that led to Chinese concerns though officially China has repeatedly expressed its support for Saudi investment. It remains unclear whether the Saudis intend to participate in CPEC projects, or whether, as is more likely, the Saudis want to use the facilities, particularly in Gwadar, to invest in refineries and other petrochemical projects.
A word of caution, however, is in order: in the event that the government provides additional incentives to the Saudis for investing in Pakistan (the word ‘additional’ defined as what is not part and parcel of our existing policy), it would be appropriate for the government to take all investment inflows from Saudi Arabia to parliament for approval, which, in turn, would mitigate against the risk of reneging on these deals by a subsequent administrations or more importantly making of the investment controversial. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is no doubt aware of the fact that previous significant investment deals with private sectors of other countries (for example, Reko Diq and the Turkish power company Karkey Karadeniz) were challenged in the international court as and when deals were reneged on. Disturbingly, however, Pakistan is contesting these cases in the court and massive penalties, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are looming against the country. To assume that the opposition is unlikely to win elections any time in the future is a mindset that has never panned out – a mindset that unfortunately the PTI is displaying as well.
Therefore, we unreservedly endorse the extremely positive general perception with respect to the visit of the Crown Prince. It must be emphasized that, irrespective of any geopolitical considerations that may have accounted for the largesse of the Saudis towards Pakistan in recent months (3 billion dollars parked at the State Bank of Pakistan for one year for balance of payment support, another three billion dollars earmarked for deferred oil facility payment for a period of three years, the 20 billion dollar MoUs as well as convincing its close ally the United Arab Emirates to match its assistance) the very scale of the assistance reflects the success of our foreign policy. One would hope that cabinet members acknowledge that a successful foreign policy indicates the confluence of shared interests between the two countries rather than an indication of the nature of the relationship between two heads of government though the policy’s success may well be strengthened by the existence of good relations between the top leadership.