Saudi-Pakistan ties get a big boost

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif in Riyadh on Wednesday. (SPA)

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif in Riyadh on Wednesday. (SPA)

Relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia received a big boost with the recent two-day visit by Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to meet Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman and other leaders, say experts.

The king held talks with the army chief at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh on Wednesday where they reviewed “close relations between the two brotherly countries and a number of issues of common interest,” according to the Saudi Press Agency.

He also met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Gen. Sharif conveyed the greetings of Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to King Salman.

Last week, while speaking at the conclusion of the Saudi-Pakistani joint military training drill, dubbed Al-Shihab, the army chief reiterated that any threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.

He said Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy a long history of deep-rooted cooperation. “This drill signifies the joint effort of our two countries against terrorism and we will defeat this menace in all its forms and manifestations,” he said.

Relations between the two countries had turned “somewhat cool” following the Pakistani Parliament’s decision in April to stay neutral in the military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists in Yemen.

Following intense back-channel diplomacy on the part of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif which eventually culminated in the joint military drill and the army chief’s visit, the relationship is now on a firm footing, say experts.

The prime minister, who enjoys a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, himself visited Riyadh in July and conducted crucial talks with King Salman to take the relationship to its historic 1998 levels.

Senior defense analyst Ikram Sehgal told a Pakistani television channel on Wednesday that it is now fair to say that the gap that was created as a result of a “misunderstanding” six months ago has now been bridged.

“We have made it clear to Saudi Arabia that we stand ready to defend them in the face of any external aggression,” he told Dunya TV. “It is significant that our army chief was not just received by his counterpart but, more significantly, by the king himself and his crown prince.”

Sehgal feels improved ties with Saudi Arabia will have a positive impact on Pakistan’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates. “Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Arab world and it will help iron out our differences with the UAE,” he said.

Even before the arrival of the army chief in Riyadh, Saudi political analyst Nawaf Obaid said Saudi-Pakistan bonds were historic and strategic. “They are based on a series of enduring protocols,” he said on Twitter.

Both the elected civilian leadership and the military commanders in Pakistan are much more confident now than they were in April when the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm was launched in Yemen.

The threat of terrorism has diminished considerably thanks to the Pakistan Army’s anti-terror Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and there is considerable political stability following the convincing victories of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in recent elections.

Fahad Nazer, a senior Saudi political analyst with the US-based JTG Inc., told Arab News on Thursday it was clear that Saudi Arabia has decided that given the unprecedented turmoil in the Middle East, it would be worthwhile to strengthen and deepen some of its more important bilateral relations.

“The Kingdom’s security and military relations with Pakistan are well established and could be traced back to the 1960s,” he said. “While Pakistan has assisted Saudi Arabia in meeting its security needs, especially in terms of training for its military forces, Saudi Arabia has likewise provided Pakistan with vital economic aid, especially after Pakistan became the target of economic sanctions in 1998.”

That was when Pakistan conducted its atomic test.

Nazer said the Pakistani Parliament’s vote in April to maintain neutrality suggested that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were not in lockstep on Yemen. “Nevertheless, the Saudis had made it clear that the Yemen campaign would proceed with or without significant support from Pakistan,” he said.

“The Saudis never adopted the ‘you’re either with us or against us’ approach to the war in Yemen,” he said. “Pakistan was not the only close Saudi ally to express reservations about Yemen, and the campaign proceeded regardless.”


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