Imran Khan’s visit to Riyadh is a significant move to rebuild relations between the historic allies following recent setbacks, say analysts.
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.
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.”
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.
Prime Minister Imran Khan is welcomed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2019 [Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court via Reuters]
‘Dragged into Saudi wars’
Commenting on Pakistan’s stance, Kugelman told Al Jazeera: “Not only does Pakistan not want to be dragged into Saudi wars, it also doesn’t want to get dragged into the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry.”
Relations continued to worsen when Pakistan also chose to be neutral as the Qatar-Gulf crisis erupted in 2017.
In 2019, Khan also announced he would attend a summit in Malaysia that Saudi Arabia was not invited to, which its rivals – Iran, Turkey and Qatar – were set to attend. Pakistan only withdrew from the summit after Khan visited the kingdom days ahead of the meeting.
These rifts have allowed Pakistan’s archrival India to gain somewhat of a foothold in the Gulf region, as it strengthens ties not only with Saudi Arabia but the United Arab Emirates as well.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Indian infrastructure and oil projects, while India has also amplified its cooperation in counterterrorism efforts with Gulf nations.
Despite this, strong Saudi-Pakistan ties are essential for both sides, say analysts.
“Pakistan-Saudi relations are synonymous to a marriage where divorce is not possible. Each side needs the other,” Siddiqa told Al Jazeera. “For Pakistan, on the forefront is the Pakistani diaspora and the need for foreign direct investment.”
With more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia, their remittances constitute a significant portion of foreign reserves for the country.
Furthermore, the two countries have a strong trade relationship, which totalled more than $1.7bn in 2019. About 74 percent of that consisted of Pakistani oil imports from Saudi Arabia.
“For Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is a source of oil exports [especially] in light of the China-Iran deal,” said Siddiqa, referring to a deal signed in March that is expected to see China buying Iranian oil and investing in Iran in defiance of American sanctions.
Pakistan is therefore, a strategic partner for Saudi Arabia, making it unlikely that India can fill its place.
“If they [Saudi Arabia] push Pakistan away it will be to their own detriment,” Siddiqa said.
Kugelman agreed: “For Pakistan, Saudi Arabia continues to be a key economic partner and strategic player,” he said referring to expatriate workers and their remittances.
“Saudi Arabia sees Pakistan as a geopolitically significant country because of its location, as it borders both Iran, Riyadh’s rival, and India – an increasingly close friend.”
While Khan’s visit sets the stage for a reset in Pakistan-Saudi ties and a new normal “characterised by relatively stable relations”, said Kugelman, the relationship is unlikely to return to the way it was before.
Echoing similar sentiments, Afzal told Al Jazeera: “Saudi Arabia has shown that it is unwilling to ‘do more’ on Kashmir due likely in large part to its close and growing economic relationship with India.
“This week’s visit will likely be a public attempt to recover from that rupture and to show solidarity with Pakistan having accepted the fact that it cannot expect the kingdom to act on Kashmir.”