Pakistan’s efforts to mend barriers with Saudi-led bloc bear fruit
KARACHI – Pakistan suddenly found itself in a stronger position with a bloc of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, having managed to mend a loophole while maintaining ties with another alliance that challenges Saudi leadership of the Muslim world.
The most recent sign of this rapprochement came last week when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Egypt to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his counterpart Sameh Shoukry and the Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit at the organization’s headquarters.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry said talks focused on the economy, but experts believe they are a continuation of wider Pakistan efforts to re-establish ties with the unraveled Saudi bloc. in August when Qureshi issued a statement against the Saudi kingdom. In the statement, Qureshi called on the Saudi Arabia-led Organization for Islamic Cooperation to stop procrastinating on calling a meeting of its Council of Foreign Ministers on Kashmir.
James M. Dorsey, a senior researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Nikkei Asia that several factors are at play, including the Shia population of Pakistan, doubts about the United States’ involvement in the region and Saudi Arabia’s desire to recognize Israel. .
After the disagreement between Pakistan and the Arab League emerged in August, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates asked Pakistan to repay $ 4 billion in loans taken out in 2018. Then, in December, the United Arab Emirates have suspended the issuance of work visas to Pakistani nationals, experts said. said was designed to put pressure on Pakistan.
But last week the situation changed. Besides Qureshi’s trip to Cairo, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each renewed $ 1 billion in loans to Islamabad.
In addition, plans for a $ 10 billion Saudi Aramco oil refinery in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar appeared to be moving forward. Shahzeb Khan Kakar, chief executive of the Gwadar Development Authority, told reporters that planning for an oil mega-city would be completed in six to seven months.
Experts believe Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, after trying to pressure Pakistan with little effect, are recalibrating their positions.
Dorsey told Nikkei Asia that the Gulf states do not want to alienate Pakistan. “Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country, home to the largest Shiite minority population in the world,” he said, “and therefore it is too important for the Gulf states to ignore it.”
The lead researcher added that Pakistan’s geography, especially its coastline along the Arabian Sea, is important to Riyadh now that uncertainty emerges over US President Joe Biden’s commitment to the regional security. Biden took office a month ago.
And then there is the angle of Israel.
“The Saudis want to recognize Israel but cannot do it easily,” Dorsey said. “If Riyadh recognizes Israel, the biggest protest against the country will be in Pakistan. Therefore, said Dorsey, Riyadh wants Pakistan to establish relations with Israel first.
“This is why the kingdom has softened its stance towards Islamabad,” he said.
While Qureshi’s visit to Egypt was seen as a broader rapprochement with the Arabs, it also had economic implications. During the trip, Qureshi also met Egyptian businessmen and highlighted the relaunch of the Pakistan-Egypt Joint Business Council.
“The visit of the Pakistani Foreign Minister to Egypt could prove to be crucial to attract Egyptian foreign direct investment and thus bring inflows to a level comparable to FDI from Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” said Lukasz Przybyszewski, West Asia analyst for the Asia Research Center. at the Warsaw Academy of War Studies.
Przybyszewski added that, from Riyadh’s point of view, Pakistan is trying to better position itself in the trade corridor and the value chain between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, in particular by increasing and diversifying its FDI inflows. .
Experts believe that Pakistan’s detente with Arab countries will not affect its good relations with the Turkey-Iran-Malaysia bloc which questions Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Muslim world.
“Pakistan is playing a very good balancing act between the Saudis and Turkey, which has produced results for the country,” Dorsey said, adding that Pakistan has taken a calibrated position which is not consistent with the Turkey’s position on Arab countries.
Przybyszewski said Islamabad is taking a multi-track approach in which new economic joint ventures and new deals with Turkey and Iran – such as a rail project involving Islamabad, Tehran and Istanbul, and a gas pipeline between Iran and the Pakistan – are supposed to balance its relations. with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“Greater convergence of economic interests between Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not harm Islamabad’s position vis-à-vis Tehran and Ankara,” Przybyszewski told Nikkei.
As Pakistan’s diplomatic feuds with the Saudis abate, experts believe relations cannot fully return to the good old days.
“Tensions have eased between Pakistan and the Saudis, [and] the flow of investments could resume, “Arif Rafiq, president of Washington-based Vizier Consulting, told Nikkei.” But Riyadh is unlikely to fall back on Islamabad over the Kashmir conflict. “
Pakistan wants Saudi Arabia to side with its dispute with India.
Regardless of this stalemate, Rafiq said, the Ankara-Islamabad understanding will become stronger over time, and Islamabad will continue to seek improved cross-border trade and security cooperation with Tehran.