By Aisha Saeed
On the foothills of Margalla stands a white concrete structure – a modern interpretation of a Bedouin tent and an emblem of a bond that has stood the test of time – in form of the Faisal Mosque. A little to the east comes the city of Faisalabad. Notable that the name Faisal holds a certain significance for Pakistan. The country’s comradeship with the country that is the cradle of Islam (Saudi Arabia) was at its prime during the rule of the late King Faisal. The king’s admiration for late Zulfiqar Bhutto and the country’s potential gave Pakistan an extraordinary status within the Saudi Royal family. King Faisal’s era set the two countries on a long road to unmatched cooperation.
Pakistan has set the stage to welcome the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud in the very city his predecessor visited. The Prince’s image, however, is tarnished with the conflict in Yemen and the incident that involved the death of a prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In Pakistan, many differ from the government’s decision to host Mohammad Bin Salman. But states are not “moral agents” in the realists’ terms when it comes to formulating their foreign policy and securing their interests.
As reported, the visit will have royal tidings for Pakistan. According to the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agenda of the visit includes initiatives like the formation of Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council (SCC), youth and sports, defence and trade opportunities. Multiple MoUs authorized by the Saudi Cabinet, including oil and aid package to ease Pakistan’s financial woes, will be the highlight of the visit.
Pakistan’s former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is said to be the man behind MBS’s visit to Pakistan. But given the grand reception by the Saudi government to Imran Khan during his last visit to the Kingdom, which needed to revamp its image in the eyes of the new government, this well may be a two-way street. There may be perhaps more than what meets the eye.
The young Saudi Price and Imran Khan have a few common traits. Both of them hope for massive reforms within their countries and see youth as the leading agents for change and progress. Tourism is another shared idea between Imran Khan and MBS. The Saudi Vision of 2020 was seen as the hallmark of MBS’s idea of the Kingdom in the years to come. Here, Imran Khan has aimed to turn Pakistan into the state of Medina.
Under both the leaders, the countries have made some key foreign policy decisions and have been actively involved in expanding their reach to the world. Moreover, both have managed to garner the support of the youth – either for power or to get in power. MBS is energetic, but assertive, while Imran Khan has gained experience from his past.
The challenges presented to both are no different in nature. While MBS is stuck with the crisis in Yemen, Imran faces the challenge to balance this equation with Iran. The kingdom itself has had trouble with its coins when it faced a sudden economic collapse but emerged stable, hence the generous offer to Pakistan. Reckoning that states exert their influence through such measures, the Kingdom comes none to second in assisting Pakistan during its dire hours.
Pakistan was also able to maintain a diplomatic stance on the Kingdom’s clash with Qatar. It was in Pakistan’s interest not to take sides on the matter as it would have compromised Pakistan’s strategic position in the Gulf. Another factor that may present itself as a challenge is Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power. While geo-strategic challenges well remain constant, there are plenty of areas of cooperation between the two brotherly states.
Defence cooperation remains one of the key areas of interest. The Kingdom considers Pakistan in high regard for the training and technical assistance for its armed forces. The Saudi cadets are also admitted to Pakistan’s Military Academy, which is regarded as a prestigious institution by the Saudi military command. Pakistan also had a major role in establishment of the Saudi Royal Air Force and training of its personnel.
The nuclear arsenal of Pakistan is another source of attraction for the Saudis but the deal has not been validated by either side. Both the countries can also play the role of “moderators” in promoting religious harmony among the Muslim world, since MBS tends to be leaning towards modernizing the Kingdom’s religious values. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is also keen on opening up China’s economic corridor to the Saudis.
With the US busy in Afghanistan and Western countries taking a strong stance against Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudis find much solace in Pakistan. Though Pakistan may not be in a position to diplomatically defend the Kingdom’s position in much of the West, it certainly cannot turn its back from taking the opportunity to address its own concerns.
The landmark visit by MBS is the first leg of his planned tour to Asia. MBS starting his tour from Islamabad sends a message of the Kingdom’s confidence in Pakistan. What both countries must ensure is this “newly found” zeal in Saudi-Pak ties remains consistent even after MBS’s visit.
Aisha Saeed is an independent analyst on media and foreign policy. She tweets @MsAishaK