Quid pro quo

Following a fruitful visit to Pakistan by the Saudi Crown Prince, Babar Ayaz gauges the extent of improvements in the two countries’ once tense relationship

Both Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s PR teams have competitively claimed credit for the successful two-day visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS) to Pakistan on February 17 as part of his Asia Tour. That’s the kind of civil-military balance in vogue now in the country, though this accolade-sharing on foreign policy success wouldperhaps not have been possible with Mian Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister.

Accompanying MBS on the tour were over 100 Saudi businessmen. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia signed memorandums of understanding worth $21 billion in various different fields, including minerals, chemicals, agriculture and food-processing. These agreements also included setting up oil refinery and petrochemical industries in Gwadar, which means Saudi crude oil could be transported to Gwadar – a good business opportunity for the port, which is being managed by the Chinese. The Saudi-financed refinery could be used by the Chinese to meet the energy demands of its Xinjiang province.

There is also talk of selling two new power plantsset up in Punjab by Pakistan – one in Haveli Bahadur Shah and one in Balloki.But it would be unwise to sell these power plants for short term gain because Pakistan already has to pay the dividends of foreign companies, which burdens the foreign exchange reserves.

While the Khan government is elated about the promised Saudi investment in Pakistan, when the euphoria dies down it might be clearer exactly what the quid pro quo of this Saudi gesture is. Once the terms and conditions of these packages are finalised, the deal with the Saudis will hopefully not be as opaque as the one made by Pakistan with China.

Meanwhile, in India, till the writing of this article, MBS’s entourage was expected to sign investment deals worth $44 billion.The Crown Prince’s economic model is to invest in other countries, diversifying Saudi investment in the tourism industry – they have been fortunate to be a religious tourist attraction for the world’s almost 2 billion Muslims –so they do not continue to rely solely onoil revenue.

Vis-à-vis Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the official view is that they were neglected by the previous government, and even to some degree strained. The army chief and Imran Khan made several visits tothe Kingdom aimed at normalisingthe relationship, which became tense when Pakistan declined togive military support to the Saudis in the Saudi Arabia-Yemen conflict, worried that such a move would spoil its relations with its western neighbor, Iran.Nevertheless, it allowed General Raheel Sharif to head the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, founded by MBS in 2015.

More recently, the Iranian government blamed a Pakistan-based terrorist group for carrying out the February 13 attack on the country’s Revolutionary Guards that left 27 guards dead and another 13 injured. Sceptics might interpret this as a gift to MBS prior to his visit to Pakistan.  But in a telephoneconversation with his Iranian counterpart Javed Zarif, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned the attack and offered cooperation with the investigation. A Pakistani delegation will also travel to Tehran to discuss Iranian concerns.

In any case, Iran is being isolated internationally by Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. A recent example of this is the Middle East security conference co-hosted by the United States and Poland in Warsaw, where all anti-Iran forces gathered to malign the Iranian nuclear programme.

At the same time, Pakistan is also being blamed for a recent bomb attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir, which claimed the lives of 44 Indian soldiers. India promptly blamed the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, which accepted responsibility. Jaish-e-Mohammad is a proscribed organisation whose leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was also named by India in the 2016 Pathankot attack. Although Foreign Minister Qureshi condemned the attacks in both Iran and India, Pakistan is not trusted by the world; whenever there is any progress in India-Pakistan relations, in Afghan-Taliban talks, or when there is an attack on Iranian forces,fingers are unfortunately pointed towards the country for the misdeeds of non-state actors.

Pakistan is being blamed for the recent Pulwama bombing, which killed 44 Indian soldiers
Pakistan is being blamed for the recent Pulwama bombing, which killed 44 Indian soldiers

The most undiplomatic statement during MBS’s trip to Pakistan came from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir when he was asked why Iran is not part of the Islamic counter-terrorism military alliance. He alleged that Iran is the ‘chief sponsor of terrorism’ in the region, saying, ‘Iran has been, since the revolution of 1979, chief sponsor of terrorism. Iran established terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. Iran has been implicated in terrorist attacks in South America, in Europe and in Saudi Arabia. Iran has been implicated in smuggling explosives and weapons to terrorist groups.’

This contradicted the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s statement that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have a commonality of views on a host of regional issues, as there was no sign of convergence on the most critical issue of Iran when the Saudi FM chose to make his allegation. Making such a statement from a third country platform is quite an indiscreet gesture, and I wonder whether the Pakistani Foreign Minister had the courage to object to the statement made by his Saudi counterpart.

Speaking out might be difficult. Pakistan has always been indebted to Saudi Arabia because of the money it dishes out. The Kingdom can get away with murder because of its petrodollars, and even Trump admitted that he would not take any action against Saudi Arabia for killing Jamal Khashoggi because, by pumping out more oil, Saudis are keeping oil prices low and have given orders of $100 billion to the US military industrial complex.

The main beneficiary of the recent visit by MBS, however, were the 2,107 Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails who will be released by Saudi Arabia on Imran Khan’s impromptu request. The crown prince reacted quickly and by the next morning, the prisoners’ release orders were given. Aren’t we lucky that Saudi Arabia is a kingdom ruled by the King and Crown Prince and not a democratic country with a standard judiciary and parliament, which would have had to approve the release of foreign prisoners?


Babar Ayaz is the author of What’s wrong with Pakistan? He can be reached at ayazbabar@gmail.com

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