Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, arrived in Pakistan on Sunday for a historic two-day visit. It was his first visit to Pakistan, and indeed Asia, since his elevation to the throne. His selection of Pakistan as a first country to be visited, in his Asia tour, holds enormous importance not only for Pak-KSA strategic partnership but also for people of both Muslim nations. This was the reason for his warm welcome by Pakistanis. Furthermore, this visit would transform the strategic nature of Pak-KSA ties into a more economic and cultural sphere of cooperation. Though, retrospectively, Pak-KSA had a strong relationship throughout decades. However, it was political and strategic in its entirety; whereas now, multi-billion dollars investment by KSA in different fields would open new avenues of cooperation, particularly economic. Ultimately, it would not only strengthen their political and strategic relations but also empower both the countries to establish strong economic ties on the basis of mutual interest.
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As the maxim goes, there is no free lunch in international relations, and how it can be in this age when competition between different entities, which is supposed to allocate all resources with the greatest possible efficiency, have led to the commodification of human relations. It would be naive to think that we are having a free lunch. Therefore, to gain a relative advantage Pakistan would need to pay for that; increased cooperation, a little more than it has been doing for the Muslim brother since decades. Here arise some questions: what are the Saudi Interests? What Pakistan will gain in this cooperation? What would be the regional and global implications for this affair? Would there be any threats to sabotage this cordial relationship? And, what should be the counter strategies? This article endeavours to answer these questions.
As for as interests of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are concerned, First, economically speaking, due to deteriorating oil prices Kingdom’s economy is challenged. Therefore, as enshrined in Saudi Vision 2030, it has started to diversify economy and investments in order to lessen its economic dependence on a single commodity, oil. For that, it needs trans-border markets; and Pakistan, that had been enjoying cordiality with KSA since decades and also enrich in natural resources and investment avenues, would serve the Kingdom’s purpose of economic diversification. In what is called by MBS as a “first phase of investment” KSA will invest $20 billion in Pakistan. Out of these, $8 billion would be invested for the establishment of oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the port of Gwadar. Also, Saudi Arabia may acquire two major natural gas power plants in Pakistan, which are to be sold out, through bidding process, as a result of privatization drive. KSA would also invest in different sectors of energy, power, water, renewable energy resources etc. These areas of investment and cooperation would, undoubtedly, provide diverse investment avenues for the Kingdom.
Secondly, as the Prince, himself, explained his desire for the establishment of a greater Middle East. Obviously, it means the Kingdom endeavours for a greater role, of hegemon, in the region. For this purpose, Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition has already been constituted under the supervision of Kingdom. This alliance is headed by ex-chief of Pakistan army, General (r) Raheel Shareef. KSA wants a proactive involvement of Pakistan to actualise the benefits of alliance. Since, Pakistan army is a well disciplined and battle hardened military, so it can serve the Kingdom countering terrorism in the Middle East. Earlier, Pakistan was coaxed by the Saudis to participate in a war against Yemen, but Pakistan restrained and showed neutrality. If any such demand is raised by KSA, at any later moment, neutrality would be the best strategy. Therefore, till the coalition counters terrorism Pakistan should proactively support it, the moment it works for aggressive nefarious designs against any country, Pakistan should remain neutral.
Third, MBS has been facing diplomatic isolation internationally since after Jamal Khashoggi’s crisis. Revival of his repute was the prioritised objective. His incumbent Asia tour – starting from Kingdom’s historical ally, Pakistan, and ending in China – is an effort to end isolation and restore diplomatic engagement.
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On the other hand, MBS visit holds great importance for Pakistan. As described earlier, historically, the mode of Pak-KSA relationship has been political and strategic in nature. This visit would usher new fields of cooperation, particularly, economic. Ultimately, transforming the nature of relationship from political and strategic to economic. It is suffice to say that advantage is mostly relative in economic cooperation. Therefore, Kingdom’s advantage, in the under discussion projects, does not mean disadvantage of Pakistan. On the contrary, this coordination would provide equal opportunities for economic progress of both the countries. Domestically speaking, Pakistan is facing dwindling economy due to different reasons: balance of payments crisis, deteriorating foreign exchange reserves- currently amounting to $8 billion, trade deficit, and foreign debt. In order to reinvigorate its economy, Pakistan needs to address aforementioned problems. As, KSA has already supported Pakistan with $6 billion bailout package to survive the ailing economy, the new investment of $20 billion, and more to follow, would rejuvenate the country’s economy.
Foreign investment in different sectors would mitigate the economic throes of Pakistan. For example, the establishment of oil refinery and petrochemical complex would create enormous opportunities for economic growth. Similarly, three government-to-government MOUs for oil refining, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and mineral development have been signed. In total, eight multi-billion dollars Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) have been signed in different fields: energy, water, power, investment, renewable energy, internal security, culture, and sports. This investment will create employment opportunities for unemployed and alleviate poverty in Pakistan; help us in resolving energy crisis; and, ultimately, boost our economy.
Regionally speaking, owing to its geostrategic location Pakistan enjoys great importance. Pak-KSA strong alliance would lead to the expansion of Pakistan’s influence and fulfilment of her national interest not only in South Asia but also in the greater Middle East region. First, as regards South Asia, Saudi participation in CPEC – a game-changer project – after Chinese consent would exponentially increase the importance of project. Then, after all, Pakistan being at the centre stage would be in a better position to achieve its goals. Second, in Middle East, Pakistan should play a role of interlocutor between different Arab countries to resolve their internal conflicts for achieving maximum benefits of this partnership. The case in point here is Saudi-Iran rivalry. Iran is an important immediate neighbour of Pakistan. Therefore, we should not be a part of any plan plotted against Iran. On the contrary, Pakistan should exert her influence and play a neutral role for peaceful resolution of conflicts to avoid any untoward situation, which could outweigh the benefits of partnership. It should be taken care of that Pak-KSA cordiality of relationship should never be at the expense of our relations with other countries.
It is pertinent to mention here that although this relationship is based on mutual interest and strong politico-religious bonds. However, like all other alliances, it is not immune to external threats. Enemy forces had already manoeuvred their means and executed two attacks: one in Kashmir; and another in Iranian province bordering with Pakistan, in order to sabotage the enchanted visit of MBS. However, these attacks could not isolate Pakistan; and the enemy miserably failed in achieving its objectives. So, enemy forces would continue such subversion activities to disrupt the cordial relationship. Therefore, both the countries need to work on countering such manoeuvres by intelligence sharing and realising the importance of partnership.
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In a nutshell, The MBS visit has transformed the nature of relationship between the two countries from strategic and political to economic sphere. Pak-KSA relationship is based on mutual interests and strong politico-religious bonds. This new dimension of alliance means a lot for a prosperous future of Pakistan. However, it is not immune from threats of disruptive forces that continue to undermine Pakistan’s efforts for regional peace and prosperity. Therefore, the affair should be protected by enemy forces. For that, Pakistan should play a smart game on the regional and global strategic chess-board.