Saudi Arabia – a deepening relationship

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Looking beneath the pomp and circumstance of the state visit of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia to Pakistan it is possible to see the potential for considerable benefits for Pakistan and some hoped-for benefits for the Kingdom. The announcement of the release from Saudi Arabian jails of 2,107 Pakistanis is an optic that grabs the headlines, but reality dictates that not all of those detained were innocent if they were tried and convicted.

Some perhaps, but not all and they will be returning to these shores. On the positive side the raising of the poor conditions in which 2.5 million Pakistanis work in the KSA, and the apparent willingness of MBS to follow up on the prime ministerial request can only be viewed positively. It is to the PM credit that he raised, and publicly, what could be a thorny issue and got the sought-for response.

Also on the up-side is the signing of Memorandums of Understanding (MOU’s) potentially worth $21 billion which include power production, the establishment of an oil refinery and petrochemical plant as well as the promotion of sports and technical assistance in various sectors. All of this points to a future that is more closely entwined with KSA than has been the case hitherto, and it is all a part of the regional churn of which Pakistan is a party to.

The geopolitical tectonics are shifting considerably faster than is the historical norm. China, India, Pakistan and Russia are all engaged in the micro and macro adjustments that are a direct consequence of a receding Pax Americana. Shifts that may have taken decades are happening in just a few years, and grand designs are ‘in process’.

For the KSA there is a degree of fence-mending and image-bolstering having taken a battering from the wider non-Arab world in recent times. For Pakistan there is image-burnishing as well, and it is quietly gaining positive reviews for the part it plays in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan and its future. Internal security has also stabilised, making any investment by KSA a safer proposition, the same being true for China and its initiatives along the One Belt One Road (OBOR) global project.  For KSA India – the next port of call for MBS – is of no less importance when it comes to balancing the internal forces of the latest iteration of the Great Game, likewise China.

On the horizon but not in the frame for KSA is Iran, a state with which Pakistan enjoys cordial relations and has infrastructure ties to courtesy of the gas pipeline project. Iran and KSA are bitter adversaries, and Indian participation in the expansion of the port of Chabahar will not play well to the Saudis who see this as a territorial threat and an encroachment. Both are fighting a proxy war in Yemen which thus far Pakistan has kept at arms length and rightly so. It is to be hoped that there is no shift in this position as a part of the price for KSA largesse.

With India vowing to isolate Pakistan diplomatically in the wake of the latest attack in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOC) a fresh layer of sensitivity is added to the wider mission of MBS; but taken overall this is a visit that while it may have been somewhat overcooked in its trappings can only be seen as several steps in the right direction for Pakistan. The next steps will be the proof of the pudding – making good the MOU’s. And if that can be achieved, even in part if not whole, then Pakistan does indeed have a brighter future.