With Pakistan led by a new prime minister in Imran Khan and a party in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf that has never been in power before, many nations have become inquisitive about the foreign policy direction the country will now take, as evidenced by the felicitations that have poured in from across the world.
The first foreign dignitaries to arrive in Pakistan following July’s election were the foreign ministers of Iran, the US and China, followed by the Saudi minister of information and finally the Turkish foreign minister. This suggests the interest of both international and regional actors in engaging with the new government. With regards to the Middle East, and keeping in mind the region’s fragmented political state, these contacts could be seen as attempts by different political groups to either woo Pakistan’s new government into their sphere of influence or to sustain their pre-existing strong links with the South Asian nation.
It must be taken into account that almost all of the former prime ministers of Pakistan have selected Saudi Arabia for their first foreign visit. Such decisions had a lot of variables involved, other than the resolve to strengthen bilateral relations. Since Saudi Arabia is home to two of Islam’s most holy places, selecting it as the first foreign destination for the country’s new chief executive echoes the paramount importance of religion in the eyes of new rulers and resonates well with their domestic constituencies. After becoming PM, Khan initially decided against any trips in the first three months of his government, but things took a turn with his visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
What led to this change of mind? The answer lies partially in the ominous situation of Pakistan’s economy. Pakistan’s foreign reserves are depleting every day and the country requires about $3 billion of financial support immediately to avoid defaulting on its already acquired loans. The Islamic Development Bank said last month that it was willing to support Pakistan financially by providing a soft loan of $4 billion. But the severity of the country’s current fiscal situation means it is in desperate need of an economic savior. The hope of securing financial support is probably one of the reasons that compelled Khan to break his pledge and travel to the Kingdom.
In order to revamp the nature of ties with Saudi Arabia, the favored path for the new government seems to be an increase in Saudi investment within different sectors of the Pakistani economy.
In order to revamp the nature of ties with Saudi Arabia, the favored path for the new government seems to be an increase in Saudi investment within different sectors of the Pakistani economy to formulate ties that have an institutional dynamic and are not simply anchored in geopolitics. Issues such as an additional quota for Hajj pilgrims, the relaxation of expatriate family fees, and the reviewing of cases of Pakistani prisoners will also be on the agenda of a new bilateral dialogue.
The interest on the Saudi side to reach out to the new government is also quite apparent. There have been regular contacts between King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Khan, clearly emphasizing the significance of Pakistan as an ally in the region and broader Muslim world. The latest push in this regard came when Saudi Information Minister Dr. Awwad Al-Awwad visited Islamabad early this month to formally invite the new PM to visit Saudi Arabia, while also meeting with political and military leaders. The significant point of his visit was that, for the first time, a Saudi official visited a Pakistani television station and held discussions with media.
This gives us a hint that the change characterizing the political developments within Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also seem to be afoot in their bilateral relations. Saudi officials meeting with institutional representatives rather than only political elites is indeed an avant-garde development. It also synchronizes well with Saudi soft power moves to grant scholarships to Pakistani students and allow the screening of Pakistani movies, which will eventually help the Kingdom gain greater social legitimacy within Pakistan for its political endeavors.
All the usual optics will be on display during this maiden trip — but the key thing will be to observe if both sides can work out how to solidify these tidings of a bilateral partnership that is multi-faceted, institutionalized and strategic.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89