Sound diplomacy required
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has confirmed that a high-level Saudi delegation is to visit Pakistan soon to “further strengthen” relations between the two countries. Coming from Mr Qureshi, the statement is quite bold and optimistic considering his recent unnecessary and undiplomatic rant censuring Saudi Arabia over its reluctance to call an OIC conference on the Kashmir issue. Nevertheless, despite the spat, norms of effective foreign policy dictate that room for finding common ground through conversation should always be present. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s relationship has endured through all sorts of civilian and military setups of the past, and the current PTI government, despite minor hiccups, has maintained a seemingly cordial rapport with an old ally.
However, problems related to financial aid and regional politics, both of which go hand in hand to an extent, remain unresolved. The PTI government received a bridge loan of $3 billion to beef up foreign exchange reserves and another $3.2 billion as an oil credit facility back in late 2018 of which, so far, $2 billion has been recalled by Saudi Arabia in two separate $1 billion tranches. Both debt collections have coincided with Pakistan refusing to take sides in any of Saudi Arabia’s many regional conflicts. Exactly a year ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan had to face severe embarrassment when he cancelled a confirmed trip to Malaysia on Saudi Arabia’s insistence, for a summit challenging the OIC. Arch Saudi rivals Iran and Turkey, attendees of the Kuala Lumpur Summit, are important allies for Pakistan and any move to sever ties with either under pressure would be a grave mistake; financial dependence on one country should not influence foreign relations with others.
The Gulf countries’ recognition of Israel, with an expectation of Saudi Arabia to follow next year and supposed pressure on Pakistan to consider doing the same, although not an immediate concern, can easily become a point of contention in the future. The upcoming visit of Saudi dignitaries therefore should be treated as a valuable opportunity to heal old wounds and ensure that any new ones do not open up. All this of course has to be done with finesse in order to keep Pakistan’s interests first. One hopes the Foreign Ministry is up to the task.