THE relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is indeed a strong one that goes back decades. While Pakistanis have a special regard for the kingdom due to its position as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, political, economic and military ties are also robust. However, the relationship has experienced turbulence over the past few years, mainly because of changing geopolitical realities in the region, and the varying responses Islamabad and Riyadh have given to meeting these challenges.
The most recent manifestation of unease in ties was the Saudi demand for timely repayment of part of a loan Pakistan had taken from the kingdom. Though the money was returned to the Saudis with China’s help, in the past such demands were unthinkable from Riyadh. But in an apparent effort to smoothen ties after this episode, the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad on Monday called upon the prime minister. Though officially it was stated that “bilateral cooperation and the Covid-19 situation” were discussed, it is safe to assume that attempts were made to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. This assumption is substantiated by the fact that the Saudi foreign minister is due to visit Pakistan next month.
In the modern era, perhaps the height of Pakistan-Saudi cooperation came when both states were on the same side helping the US give the Soviets a tough time in the Afghan ‘jihad’. Of course, the cooperation has continued thereafter, especially on the military and economic fronts, with the kingdom currently hosting over a million Pakistani workers, who in turn have over the decades played a major role in transforming Saudi Arabia into a modern state.
However, the relationship was jolted in 2015 when — against presumed Saudi wishes — parliament voted against entering the Yemen war. While the move had earned Riyadh’s ire, the collective wisdom of parliament has proved correct, keeping Pakistan away from a conflict that is an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. Yet last year it appears the Saudis were more successful in pressuring Pakistan, as this country stayed away from a summit in Malaysia that Riyadh saw as an alternative to the OIC.
The Saudis are wary of seeing the formation of a bloc including Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran and Turkey lest it challenge Arab ‘leadership’ of the Muslim world. Also, Prime Minister Imran Khan has said he has been facing demands to recognise Israel, with speculation that our Arab friends may be nudging us to establish ties with Tel Aviv.
Going forward, Pakistan should by all means work towards improving and strengthening the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. However, this should not come at the cost of sovereignty; this country must remain free to take decisions regarding foreign policy that are in its best interest. Moreover, Pakistan must work hard to stabilise its internal economic and political situation so that both friends and foes are unable to exploit its weaknesses.
NEWS of a mutated, more transmissible version of the Covid-19 virus in the UK has set off alarm bells. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement this week that one-third of England’s population would be placed under strict restrictions came as a blow to millions who had hoped to celebrate Christmas or travel to see loved ones. Under the new Tier 4 rules, non-essential shops are closed and households are not allowed to mix. Those in Tier 4 areas, such as London and southeast and east England, will also not be allowed to travel. As the news of this new strain, which is believed to be up to 70pc more transmissible, spread, several countries restricted flights from the UK to keep the mutated virus from entering their own territories. While EU states were among the first to ban flights and some trains from the UK, others soon joined them. Pakistan, too, has restricted travel for anyone who has been in the UK 10 days prior to arrival. For Pakistani citizens making their way home from the UK, the NCOC has made a PCR test mandatory before boarding as well as after landing.
No doubt, this situation has made the UK feel isolated. Not only is the British government receiving flak from its citizens for poor planning and mismanagement over the Christmas holiday period, internationally, the UK is also facing travel and in some cases freight bans. The British economy is already facing a serious recession because of Covid-19 as well as Brexit. The government’s U-turn on restrictions during Christmas, which marks record sales for retailers each year, has hurt the economy and the psyche of citizens. No doubt, the restrictions are necessary as Britain reports a record 35,000-plus daily cases and over 300 daily deaths. But many feel the last-minute decision to cancel Christmas, as well as Mr Johnson’s shock announcement about a new strain, could have been handled better. Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England revealed that the new coronavirus variant was identified in October from a sample taken in September — months earlier when the UK had largely reopened after prolonged closure. It appears that, much like in March when cases in the UK rose at an alarming rate, a late decision was taken to shut down. Belated action can result in a higher number of hospitalisations and deaths, and can have long-lasting impacts on the mental and physical health of citizens as well as the economy.