Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: a unique, profound and durable relationship

In this photo released by Press Information Department, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, center, chairs the National Security Committee meeting, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, April 22, 2022. (Press Information Department via AP)
In this photo released by Press Information Department, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, center, chairs the National Security Committee meeting, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, April 22, 2022. (Press Information Department via AP)
Short Url:
24 Apr 2022 11:04:24 GMT9
24 Apr 2022 11:04:24 GMT9

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have an exceptional relationship, rooted in the love between the two peoples and, hence, immune to the changes in leadership. This bond has continued to cement in the past several decades in political, security, economic and cultural spheres of cooperation. And, it shall boost further under the charismatic leadership of Mian Mohammad Shahbaz Sharif, the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan.

Mr. Sharif will soon visit the Kingdom to perform Umrah and seek the blessings of Almighty Allah (SWT) and Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in the holy month of Ramadhan. On the occasion, he may also meet the Saudi leadership to boost the bonds of brotherhood.

Pakistan is my second home. I have spent the primetime of my diplomatic career as an ambassador in Islamabad for almost a decade, from 2001 to 2009. For some years, I also served as the dean of its diplomatic corps. I am well aware of PM Sharif’s administrative skills as the former chief minister of Punjab for three tenures, during which he changed the face of Lahore and the rest of the province. Nawaz Sharif, his elder brother who served thrice as prime minister, was instrumental in developing the parliamentary institutions of Pakistan and enabling it to become the only nuclear state in the Muslim world.

Pakistan is at a critical juncture today. Externally, it faces a precarious situation on the western border with Afghanistan after the US exit; while across the eastern frontier, India’s Hindu nationalist wave endangers the fate of the Kashmiri Muslims. Internally, serious deterioration in economic conditions not only derails political stability but also limits the country’s ability to tackle external challenges. But I am sure that Prime Minister Sharif has the ability, courage and will to take Pakistan forward meaningfully. I have also no doubt that he can count on the unwavering Saudi support for the purpose.

A Proud History

Saudi Arabia has always contributed to Pakistan’s economy, stability and the wellbeing of its people — a proud tradition that goes well before Independence. In 1940, the year when Pakistan Resolution was passed, then-Crown Prince Saud bin Abdul Aziz visited Karachi and was warmly welcomed by the Muslim League leaders, including Mirza Abul Hasan Ispahani. In 1943, when the famine hit Bengal, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud responded to Quaid-e-Azam’s appeal with a handsome donation. In 1946, when the Indian Muslim League delegation led by Mr. Ispahani visited the UN headquarters in New York, Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz hosted a reception so that it could lobby for the cause of Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia was among the first UN member-states to recognize Pakistan. In 1950, it also concluded a Treaty of Friendship with Pakistan. In 1954, King Saud bin Abdulaziz laid the foundation stone for a housing scheme in Karachi, the former capital, which was named after him as Saudabad. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and

Pakistan worked closely during the 1965 India-Pakistan war and the 1967 Arab Israeli war. In 1969, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, then-Saudi minister of defence and aviation, visited Pakistan to conclude the protocol for bilateral defense cooperation.

A glorious chapter in Saudi-Pak ties unfolded in the 1970s under the leadership of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz and Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Its highlight was the 1974 Lahore Islamic Summit of the Organization of Islamic Countries, whose symbolic value continues to live in the collective memory of the two nations. Pakistani people loved King Faisal bin Abdulaziz. The Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, the city of Faisalabad and the Shahara-e-Faisal in Karachi are all named after him. This was the time when Saudi Arabia opened its doors to Pakistani workforce and provided financial to the Bhutto regime to thwart India’s nuclear ambitions.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were the leading members of anti-communist cold war alliances, including CENTO and SEATO. Therefore, in the 1980s, they joined hands to support the international fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which ultimately liberated the world from the scourge of communism. In 1982, they also concluded a bilateral security cooperation agreement, under which Pakistan assists Saudi Arabia in military training and defense production capabilities. In 1989, when the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait threatened the territorial integrity of the Kingdom, Pakistan participated in the international coalition by despatching an army division to act as the first line of defence in the Saudi border regions.

In the 1990s, as the Afghan Mujahideen factions fought among themselves, both nations were on the forefront of international global peace efforts. In 1997, Pakistan organised the extraordinary Islamic Summit of the OIC, to mark the golden jubilee of its independence. Then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz graced the occasion. As Pakistan came under heavy Western sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests, the Kingdom met the bulk of its oil needs for a year on deferred payment, most of which was later converted into grant.

Having served as the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan during a tumultuous period, I vividly remember the gravity of terrorism that our two nations faced post-9/11 and how we confronted this danger together in the heyday of the War on Terror. With the instructions and guidance of my leadership, I maintained close interaction with the civilian and military leadership to ensure Pakistan’s stability and security. When a devastating earthquake hit the Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Saudi Arabia was the first country to establish an air corridor to provide emergency relief to its victims, with two state-of-the-art field hospitals fully equipped and operated by professional Saudi doctors. Through the OIC, we tackled this natural disaster together, as well as championed the cause of Islamic peace at the UN and other global platforms.

The Turning Point

A decade later, in January 2019, I returned to Islamabad after performing my ambassadorial duties in Lebanon and retiring from the diplomatic service. I was happy to learn that Pakistan had successfully defeated the menace of terrorism through the National Action Plan. Interaction with the intelligentsia revealed that Pakistani people were excited about the Saudi modernisation drive under the Vision 2030 of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A month later, in February 2019, the young Saudi leader landed in Islamabad, to announce a major shift in economic relations with Pakistan.

A few months before, in November 2018, the Crown Prince had signed on the emergency economic relief package worth $6.2 billion for Pakistan, including $3 billion in loan and $3.2 oil credit facility on annual basis for the next three years, to shore up its foreign exchange reserves and avert a balance-of-payments crisis. The UAE followed suit with a similar package of economic support. This was several months before the IMF approved the current $6 billion bailout for Pakistan.

Successive Saudi leadership has always respected Pakistani people’s right to choose their leaders, civilian or military. It has always dealt with them with respect and dignity. So was the case with the previous government. Which is why the Kingdom was the first to come to Pakistan’s rescue and also invest in its future.

Perhaps the most important take away from the Crown Prince’s visit was the conclusion of the biggest Saudi investment deals worth $20 billion in Pakistan, including a $10 billion Aramco oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the strategic port city of Gwadar. “I am your ambassador in Saudi Arabia,” the Crown Prince cheerfully told Imran Khan. Later in the year, he offered his personal plane to the former prime minister to fly to New York and address the UN General Assembly.

The next logical step would have been to jointly work out the development plans for Saudi economic projects in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the international forces hostile to Saudi Arabia’s unique position in the Muslim world conspired to subvert the emerging transition in Saudi-Pak ties from geo-politics to geo-economics. The context was clear: China is the largest importer of Saudi oil, and Saudi Arabia is diversifying its global economic links through participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is BRI’s flagship project, which ends at Gwadar, the proposed site for the Saudi Aramco oil refinery.

The conspiracy became apparent when consecutive attempts were made to create a rival Muslim bloc to undermine OIC’s position as the largest representative organization of 57 Muslim countries and question its credibility as an arch bearer of the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri Muslims. Luckily, the inherent resilience in Saudi-Pak ties defeated this conspiracy. In the past two years, the relationship is back on track. In December 2021, Pakistan received $3 billion worth of financial support package from Saudi Arabia.

The Way Forward

Of course, Prime Minister Sharif’s immediate priority is to overcome the unprecedented economic crisis at home, for which I think he will seek additional Saudi support. I have no illusion that the Saudi leadership will never let Pakistan down. This will ensure stable political environment for the coalition government ahead of the next general elections, which is necessary for sustainable economic progress.

The ongoing diversification of Saudi economy entails enormous opportunities for Pakistan’s skilled workforce in IT, tourism and financial services sectors. The Kingdom is home to more than two million Pakistani workers and is the single largest remittance

source for Pakistan ($4.4 billion during July 2019-April 2020 as per the State Bank’s figures). But most of them fall in the category of unskilled or semiskilled labour. This leads me to remind the current government to focus on creating vocational institutes to train skilled manpower so that Pakistan can succeed in the increasingly competitive Saudi labour market.

The Saudi Vision 2030 aims to make Saudi Arabia a global economic hub, with giga development projects such as the $500 billion NEOM city. Pakistan has ample skilful youth to contribute to Saudi Arabia’s post-industrial development and, in turn, shore up its forex reserves through enhanced remittances.

The first step in this respect is already taken through the bilateral agreements on the recruitment and skills verification of Pakistani workforce, which will streamline the process of exporting skilled and certified workers for diverse professions in the Kingdom while safeguarding their due rights. Pakistan’s National Vocational and Technical Training Commission and Takamol, a subsidiary of the Saudi government will jointly manage this task under the Kingdom’s Skills Verification Program. This will enable the prospective Pakistani workforce to compete with Indian and other expat candidates for successful recruitment in the Saudi development sector.

Investment and trade are two other important spheres of economic cooperation where the Chambers of Commerce and Industries of the two countries are required to gear up their efforts with the help of the relevant governmental ministries. The Saudi government is already committed to spend $20 billion to developing a refinery, a petrochemical complex, and mining and renewable energy sectors in Pakistan. But there is a lot of scope for investment by Saudi private companies in other sectors of the Pakistani economy.

The city of Sialkot is globally known for being the hub of sports goods and surgical instruments, and will be an ideal place for Saudi investment. The industrial zones in Karachi and Faisalabad could be additional choices for the purpose. The already agreed refinery and petrochemical projects already align Saudi public sector investment with CPEC. The planned development of several Special Economic Zones along the economic corridor, which runs from Xinjiang and ends at Gwadar, can also attract Saudi private investment.

Therefore, the representatives of the Chambers of Commerce and Industries in both countries need to communicate and interact more frequently. The Pakistani government also needs to create a conducive environment for the private Saudi investment, by undertaking necessary legal reforms to protect the rights of foreign investors and ensure smooth return of their investments. There is also tremendous scope for Pakistan’s leading business families to invest in the real estate, tourism and services sectors in Saudi Arabia. In the past couple of decades, Pakistan has made tremendous progress in urban development. Time has come to extend its scope abroad, for which Saudi Arabia offers the most hospitable and secure environment.

Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have extremely low level of bilateral trade, despite being so close politically and culturally. Currently estimated to be $3 billion annually, the bilateral trade must expand by fast-tracking the negotiating process to sign the Free Trade Agreement. Talks on the FTA began in 2018. Thereafter, representatives from each other’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries have exchanged visits. There is urgent need for official sponsorship of the interaction between the traders and businessmen to identify additional areas where each side has a comparative advantage and explore complementarities in the tradeable products.

Economic cooperation needs to emulate the persisting pattern of relationship in the security domain. From defending the sanctity of Haramain Sharifain to defeating the scourge of terrorism, Pakistan has always been a key Saudi partner and a major Muslim player. Both nations’ defence establishments have exceptionally close relations in the military training and advisory spheres. Reciprocal visits by Saudi and Pakistan military leaders and security officials are a norm. Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa has travelled to the Kingdom several times. He has interacted with Prince Khalid bin Salman, the deputy defence minister, in Islamabad and Riyadh. That his predecessor, Gen. Raheel Sharif, has commanded the 41-member Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Alliance headquartered in Riyadh is a reflection of their close military collaboration.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also cooperate closely on a host of regional and global issues of concern. They have always striven together to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan and Kashmir and deal with global issues of deep concern to the Muslim world like Islamophobia. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has twice travelled to Islamabad recently: Last December, he attended the successful special session of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers held in response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Then, last month, he participated in the 48th session of CFM to deal with key Muslim world challenges facing the Muslim world last month, including the Kashmir issue. The Saudi-Pak coordination in strategic affairs must grow further.

Let me conclude by reiterating that our historic relationship has come a long way, and its current evolution is opening up vast avenues for tangible progress ahead. A rare spirit of camaraderie brings the two nations together, including the fact that millions of Pakistanis visit the Kingdom each year to perform Hajj and Umrah. That is why, each passing decade, the mutual cooperation in political, security, economic and cultural spheres has grown by leaps and bounds. I have no doubt that this brotherly bond will reach new heights under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. May Almighty Allah (SWT) bless Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in their common cause for an enlightened future.

Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2009 and received Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Hilal-e-Pakistan, for his services in promoting the Saudi-Pakistan relationship. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Beirut Arab University and authored the book “Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror” (Oxford, 2009). He is a member of the Board of Trustees at RASANAH, the International Institute for Iranian Studies, Riyadh.

Most Popular

return to top