Pakistani Prime Minister Khan visits Saudi Arabia to reset ties

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has started a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia in an effort to reset relations after tensions between the longtime allies in recent years.

Khan’s arrival in Riyadh on Friday after an invitation from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds much significance, analysts say. While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have historically been close allies, their strong ties have suffered several setbacks.

“PM Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week … is an attempt to reset relations to their former, very close level,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the foreign policy programme of Brookings Institution.

The two countries remain important geostrategic partners and a stable relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh is expected to continue.

Significant visit

Pointing to the importance of Khan’s visit, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday ahead of the prime minister’s arrival.

Bajwa was received by Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bilal Akbar and Saudi military officials in preparation for Khan’s trip.

Significant visit

Pointing to the importance of Khan’s visit, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday ahead of the prime minister’s arrival.

Bajwa was received by Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bilal Akbar and Saudi military officials in preparation for Khan’s trip.

“Bajwa, like all Pakistani army chiefs, calls the shots on foreign policy, and his own visit was clearly meant to convey a Pakistani seriousness of purpose in advance of Khan’s arrival,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center think-tank.

While most observers expect discussions during the visit to focus on economic engagement – including work opportunities for Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia and Saudi investment in Pakistan – Riyadh will also try to strengthen political ties with Pakistan.

“Given the Biden administration’s tough stance towards Saudi Arabia, Riyadh cannot afford to cut off any allies at the moment- be they big or small in significance,” said Arhama Siddiqa, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

The visit represents “each side’s attempt to further a sustainable and mutually beneficial partnership”, Siddiqa told Al Jazeera.

Kugelman said while a core goal for Islamabad will be to regain financial assistance from Riyadh: “The purpose of Khan’s visit, for both countries is simple. To be able to say that the partnership is back on level ground.”

Recent setbacks

In recent years, the relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia after decades of close economic, military and political cooperation suffered several fractures.

In August last year, Pakistan accused the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 57 Muslim-majority countries led by Saudi Arabia – of inaction over New Delhi’s decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status in 2019.

With Kashmir being a key policy issue for Pakistan, Khan threatened to hold a rival meeting that would bypass the OIC – a move perceived as a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Muslim world.

Riyadh responded by withdrawing $1bn of a $3bn interest-free loan it extended to Pakistan in 2018, at a time when the South Asian nation was suffering dire economic conditions.

Although the issue was patched up within days, the diplomatic spat threatened to derail the Islamabad-Riyadh alliance.

Prior to that, tensions were high over Pakistan’s refusal to send its troops to fight in the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015.

Despite the countries enjoying strong military ties, with Pakistan regularly providing troops and military training to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan chose to remain neutral in Yemen’s war.

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