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Pakistan & Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA, aka "the Kingdom"] and Pakistan have strong political, economic, security, religious and cultural ties that go beyond most other regional relationships. Pakistan is one of the 41 members of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

Pakistanis in the Kingdom account for a large part of the actual labor force. Over twelve million foreigners live in Saudi Arabia, over one-third of the country’s total population. At 1.6 million people, Pakistanis make up the second-largest migrant community in Saudi Arabia (after Filipinos), most of whom travel to the country as foreign migrant workers. By other estimates, the Kingdom hosts more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates, or possibly even 2.7 million. Saudi Arabia executes more Pakistanis than any other foreign nationality annually, nearly all for heroin smuggling, including 20 in 2014, 22 in 2015, 7 in 2016, and 17 in 2017.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was on a high profile visit to Pakistan, ordered the release of more than 2,000 Pakistani prisoners from Saudi prisons. Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudry posted the news 18 February 2019: "As a sequel to Prime Minister of Pakistan request, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of KSA Mohammad Bin Salman has ordered the immediate release of 2107 Pakistani prisoners Saudi Jails. The crown prince oversaw the signing of unprecedented investment deals with Pakistan worth $20 billion just a few hours after landing in Islamabad on his maiden state visit.

In 1946, Muhammad Ali Jinnah sent the All India Muslim League’s Ispahani mission to the United Nations (UN) to seek diplomatic support for the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of Indian subcontinent. The Indian National Congress tried to use all means of obstructing the Ispahani mission that was to interact with the UN delegates. Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, who was heading the Saudi delegation at that time, extended all kinds of support to facilitate the Muslim League delegation by inviting them to an official reception hosted in honor of all the UN delegates and provided them the opportunity to present their case, thus laying the foundation stone for strong Saudi-Pak relations.

The people of Pakistan had the honor of having welcomed King Saud, the founder of post-Balkan Saudi Arabia in 1954, and King Faisal in 1974. The incumbent King of Saudi Arabia His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, too, had special feelings for Pakistan. Saudi Crown Princes, right from Khalid bin Abdul Aziz, Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to Mohammed bin Salman honored Pakistan with their visits as a gesture of goodwill.

When in the 1970s India threatened to go nuclear, it was Saudi Arabia that stepped up to provide moral, diplomatic and economic support to strengthen Pakistan’s conventional defence. The Kingdom was also instrumental in organizing the 1974 Islamic Summit in Lahore, in which all the top leaders of Muslim world participated.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 70s, Saudi Arabia was the first to come to Pakistan’s help in its bid to defend its territorial integrity. Not only did it help Pakistan in hosting over 4 million Afghan refugees, but also regularly supplied food items, especially meat of sacrificial animals on Eid-ul-Azha each year. Throughout the 1980s, the Saudis supported the Pakistan-based Afghan resistance groups whose guerrillas routinely crossed into Afghanistan to fight against Soviet forces occupying parts of the country from December 1979 until February 1989.

Similarly, when Pakistan decided to conduct nuclear tests in response to India’s in May 1998, the Pakistan government took the Saudi leadership in confidence in order to guard against possible international sanctions. Saudi Arabia was quick to give Pakistan assurance. Besides other economic assistance, it supplied 50,000 barrels of crude oil free of cost daily for one year.

As a result of the advanced technology inherent in the military modernization programs, large numbers of foreign military and civilian personnel have been needed to service and maintain weapons systems and to train Saudi personnel in their use. A considerable number of officers from Muslim areas — including Pakistanis, Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Egyptians — were contracted on an individual basis, mostly in training and logistics assignments. As many as 11,000 to 15,000 Pakistani troops and advisers had been recruited to bring the two armored brigades to full strength, as well as to serve in engineering units and the air force. The 10,000 troops in the armored service left the country beginning in late 1987, reportedly because Pakistan was unwilling to screen the Shia element from the force at a time when conflict with Iran seemed a possibility.

The Saudis do not favor one Pakistani political faction over another, their main concern is stability. The Saudis have never liked or trusted Zardari, and by 2009 political turmoil in Pakistan seemed to have shaken their confidence in his political viability. Zardari made several missteps, such as traveling to China as his first official visit before visiting Saudi Arabia, and skipping the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in favor of attending meetings in Europe and the US. This is Zardari,s way of asserting a bit of independence from the Saudis. He was trying to show that he is not relying on them, but it only made them mistrust him.

Further, the local impact of the financial crisis and low oil prices were causing the Saudis to become more hard-nosed about their foreign assistance expenditures, given the need to resolve domestic political differences between the Zardari and the Sharif camps.

The Saudis do not wish to see political infighting lead to instability in Pakistan. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made statements to the press over the summer of 2009 about wanting to contest elections in Lahore, but since then had not been heard from. This is the result of Saudi intervention. Because Nawas' daughter is married to a grandson of King Fahd, he has become "a member" of the Saudi royal family.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would not be tried for treason in Pakistan, and that this is again due to Saudi pressure. The Saudis don't want to re-open all of the problems with the judges and Musharraf.

Saudi Arabia enjoys special status in Pakistan’s foreign policy as the country takes upon itself both a written and an unwritten responsibility of safeguarding the holy cities of Makkah and Madina against any kind of external aggression. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan agreed to help each other in times of need. In 1979, when miscreants took control of Kaa’ba, Pakistani commandoes were rushed to Saudi Arabia who, through a swift and safe surgical operation, helped restore the Saudi authorities’ writ.

Under the agreement, Pakistan started training the Saudi forces; selected batches of the Royal Forces’ officers receive training from Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, Pakistan Navy Academy in Karachi and Pakistan Air Force Academy Risalpur.

Around 20,000 Pakistani troops remained deployed in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Tabuk and other areas in a joint effort to thwart any possible external aggression. During the First Gulf War in 1991, the Pakistani troops were there to defend Saudi borders. At present, too, a training mission of Pakistan Army is in Saudi Arabia, which is working on an advisory and training role to enhance the combat efficiency of Saudi law enforcement agencies. According to a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) study, both the allies have institutionalized their strategic relations under which both the countries will be at liberty to pursue their respective national aims and objectives without compromising on each other’s interests.

On February 19, 2018 Pakistan’s Defence Minister gave a briefing to the Senate regarding cooperation between the two countries and the terms of engagement under which the troops were to be sent. During a meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince on February 1, 2018 and with the Saudi Vice President of the Council of Ministers on February 2, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa discussed matters of mutual interest and military ties between Riyadh and Islamabad. A total of 1,600 troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia while 1000 Saudi troops are receiving training; another 1,000 troops were also sent, bringing the tally to 2,600. “The apprehension that our troops will get entangled in the war [in Yemen] is incorrect. The deployment remains within the remits of agreement, under which our forces will help train the Saudi troops.”

A February 15, 2018 press release issued by ISPR has also said that a Pakistan Army contingent will be stationed in Saudi Arabia on a training and advisory mission. The announcement followed a meeting between the Saudi Ambassador and COAS at the General Headquarters. Pakistan already had troops in Saudi Arabia under a 1982 bilateral agreement.

Following the royal visit in February 2019, a new warmth was witnessed in the relationship between the two countries. Pakistan supported the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 that is aimed at liberating the Saudi economy from dependence on foreign oil producing companies, eradicating corruption, granting basic rights to women in the society and provision of jobs to Saudi nationals. Pakistan welcomed King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda of reforms. Saudi Arabia appointed a female ambassador in the United States for the first time in the Saudi history. Likewise, the Saudi government, especially the Crown Prince, recognizes the positive role of 2.7 million Pakistanis in the Kingdom’s development.

Most importantly, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit generated extremely positive public opinion, which emphasizes that irrespective of any geopolitical considerations that may have accounted for the largesse of the Saudis towards Pakistan (USD 3 billion parked at the State Bank of Pakistan for one year for balance of payment support, another three billion dollars earmarked for deferred oil facility payment for a period of three years, USD 20 billion in MoUs as well as convincing its close ally UAE to match its assistance). The very scale of the assistance reflects the success of the foreign policy.

Such a successful foreign policy indicates the confluence of shared interests between Riyadh and Islamabad, with other Gulf states and regional countries. The formal launch of Saudi-Pak SCC to focus on economy, security and energy gave a new dimension to the bilateral ties of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. With a focus on building long-lasting economic ties, the Saudi investment announced by the Crown Prince into Pakistan’s economy would help kick-start several high-profile development projects. A joint press statement issued in Islamabad noted that the Crown Prince emphasized the potential of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, he stated, would contribute to the development and prosperity of the region.

In September 2018 Prime Minister Imran Khan had invited the Saudis to participate in CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) projects. “This is for the first time we have a relationship that is developing into other spheres and it is just the beginning,” the Prime Minister said in a press statement just before the departure of the royal guest at Nur Khan Air Base. The Crown Prince reposed full confidence in the leadership of Pakistan and said, “We feel hope in Pakistan and we believe in Pakistan’s future.” He said that he looked forward to the day when Pakistan turned into a big economy in the region owing to its huge potential. He further stated that the $20 billion investment in the first phase would definitely grow in numbers in the years ahead and would prove beneficial for both the countries. “What we did today was just the beginning,” the Crown Prince said before his departure.

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