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Analysis

PM Imran Khan’s Riyadh Visit: Goals, Prospects

Tuesday 26 October 2021
PM Imran Khan’s Riyadh Visit: Goals, Prospects

Alwaght- Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Riyadh on Sunday to participate in Middle East Green Initiative. Accompanying the PM in the three-day visit, at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was a high-ranking delegation that included the Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi and a number of the cabinet ministers.

His last visit to the Arab kingdom, his seventh as PM, was on May 7, during which he talked to the Saudi leaders to strengthen bilateral ties and ease strained ties of the two sides. However, dark clouds of distrust continue to overshadow their relations.

A question presents itself here: What are the goals the Pakistani PM is seeking in his new Riyadh trip? What are the Saudi demands and expectations from him, on the other hand?

Special economic goals behind the visit

Perhaps the most important purpose of Imran Khan's visit is economic. He intends to convince bin Salman to continue investment in Pakistan. In February 2019, the crown prince toured several Asian countries, including Pakistan, with the aim of restoring the international community's trust in Saudi Arabia, promising the Pakistanis to invest billions in oil, infrastructure, and energy sectors. But things did not work as was favored because Islamabad joined a four-party summit including Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals Iran, Turkey, and Malaysia. Now the PM seeks to persuade the Saudi policy czar to realize his promises of financial support and investment.

From Islamabad's point of view, Saudi Arabia plays an important role in Pakistan’s economy. The oil-wealthy monarchy currently hosts 2.5 million Pakistanis annually sending home $6 billion in remittances. Saudi Arabia is Pakistan's largest origin of remittances. In addition, Pakistan's annual bilateral trade volume with Saudi Arabia is put at $4 billion, mainly including oil imports from Saudi Arabia. In such a situation, Imran Khan seems to be seriously relying on shoring up the economic cooperation between the two countries, and in his recent trip, he is seeking big economic concessions from the Saudi rulers.

Continuing Riyadh-Islamabad political alliance

With a population of more than 220 million, Pakistan is one of the most important Sunni countries in the Islamic world, and its geographical proximity to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf has given it a more important role in the Arab world, as in recent years the Muslim Brotherhood front led by Turkey and Qatar and the opposite camp led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE-led have tended to maintain Islamabad on their sides. Since the 1980s, Pakistan has played the role of the most important country hosting efforts to promote Wahhabi ideology for Saudi Arabia, through religious schools funded by the Saudis. Students graduating from these schools, also called madrasas, formed the initial nucleus of the Salafi groups, which are still believed to be Riyadh's proxy war infantry to deal blows to the interests of its regional rivals.

Increasing military cooperation, with Saudi glance at nuclear arms procurement

Despite Pakistan's lack of cooperation with Saudi Arabia in regional policy, especially when it comes to Yemen war and relations with Iran, Riyadh officials are keen to increase military cooperation with Islamabad. Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has shown great interest in military cooperation with Pakistan in various dimensions and has tried to include Islamabad in military and security coalitions under its leadership. One of their most prominent areas of military cooperation is the participation of Islamabad in the so-called Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, which was announced by Saudi Arabia in mid-December 2015.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has a particular interest in training its troops by Pakistani officers. Over the past decade, about 2,000 Pakistani officers have been deployed to train Saudi troops. Another noteworthy point is that now retired General Raheel Sharif, the former Pakistani army chief, is in charge of the 41-nation Saudi-led Islamic military organization.

In recent years, several joint military exercises have been held between the two countries. The latest was held on October 2, with Saudi naval vessels joining training with the Pakistani forces. The Saudi air force was also present for the first time with F-15 fighter jets. A meeting between bin Salman and the Pakistani army chief Qamar Jawed Bajwa had preceded the military drills, discussing boost to military cooperation.

Saudi Arabia is also seeking to expand its nuclear program through Pakistan as the only nuclear-armed power in the Muslim world. The revelation of some hidden details of Saudi Arabia's nuclear program over the past few years has clearly demonstrated Saudi Arabia's quest for a nuclear bomb. In fact, the Saudis in their ambitious plan to become a top regional power intend to become the second Muslim nuclear state, thereby shifting the balance of power in their favor. Even in recent years, Saudi nuclear cooperation with China to build the industrial capacity needed to produce nuclear fuel has been pursued by Riyadh leaders. There is even evidence that Saudi Arabia currently has mid-range, nuclear-capable DF-3 (Dong Feng 3) missiles. Bin Salman seems to have a desire at the back of his mind for nuclear bomb procurement via Pakistan and this is driving him to demand bolstered ties with Islamabad.

The outlook

At present, Saudi leaders are seeking to paint as strategic and comprehensive alliance the cooperation between them and Pakistan. But despite the media propaganda seeking to propagate this idea, their ties are not as high level as it is painted. Pakistan refused to join the Saudi-led Arab coalition to invade Yemen in 2015. It also did not join Saudi-led Qatar blockade in 2017, nor did it join the Saudi orbit in opposition to Iran, and has close ties with the Turkey. All these Pakistani policies share one message: The claims about Saudi-Pakistani alliance being strategic are untrue.

Furthermore, Saudi rejection to support Pakistan in Kashmir dispute and blocking the Arab League entry to the same crisis with India accentuates an explicit gap in their relations. Their relations are even hit harder as a large body like the Islamic Cooperation Organization, whose policy and approach are substantially influenced by Saudi Arabia, withholds wider efforts around Kashmir, a key issue in Pakistan’s policy. All these issues convey a considerable level of gaps in the Saudi-Pakistani foreign policy-making, something discrediting the claimed strategic nature of their bilateral relations.  

Tags :

Imran Khan Pakistan Saudi Cooperation Nuclear Kashmir

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