MBS in Pakistan

Both Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s PR teams have competitively claimed credit for the successful two-day visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) to Pakistan on February 17 as part of his Asia Tour. This is the kind of civil-military balance we have right now in this country. This sharing of accolades on a foreign policy success was perhaps not possible with Mian Nawaz Sharif as the PM.

Over 100 Saudi businessmen arrived with MBS. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia signed memorandums of understanding worth $21 billion in different fields; including mineral, chemicals, agriculture, food processing and others. This also includes setting up an oil refinery and petrochemical industries in Gwadar. This would mean Saudi crude oil would be transported to Gwadar. This would be a good business opportunity for the port, which is being managed by the Chinese. The Saudi-financed oil refinery could be used by the Chinese to meet the energy demands of its Xinjiang province.

There is also talk about selling two power plants – Haveli Bahadur Shah Zafar Power Plant and Balloki Power Plant – set up in Punjab by Pakistan. It would be unwise to sell these power plants for a short term gain because Pakistan already has to pay the dividends of foreign companies, which burdens the foreign exchange reserves.

The incumbent government is happy over the promised Saudi investment in Pakistan. Once the euphoria dies down however, we might find out what the actual price of all this investment was. Once the terms and conditions of these packages are finalised, the deal with the Saudis will hopefully not be as opaque as the one made by Pakistan with China.

Meanwhile, in India, he signed investment deals worth $44 billion. MBS’ economic model is to invest in other countries and diversify Saudi investment in the tourism industry.

A spokesperson of the PTI government has said that relations with Saudi Arabia were neglected by the previous government and there were some strains on bilateral relations. The army chief and Imran Khan made several visits to normalise relations between the two countries. The relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were strained when Pakistan denied giving military support to Riyadh in the Saudi Arabia-Yemen conflict. Pakistan was also wary that if it provided any active military support in this conflict, it would spoil its relations with Iran.

Accusing Iran of being the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism from a third country was quite undiplomatic of the Saudi Foreign Minister

More recently, the Iranian government blamed a Pakistan-based terrorist group for carrying out the February 13 attack on the Revolutionary Guards in Iran that left 27 guards dead and another 13 injured. But, in a telephonic talk with his Iranian counterpart Javed Zarif, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned the attack and offered to cooperate for the investigation into the attack. A Pakistani delegation will also travel to Tehran to discuss Iranian concerns. Many skeptics would interpret the attack on Iranian forces as a gift to MBS prior to his visit to Pakistan.

In any case, Iran is being isolated internationally by Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. A recent example of this is that of the Middle Eastern security conference co-hosted by the United States and Poland in Warsaw, where all anti-Iran forces gathered to malign the Iranian nuclear programme.

At the same time, Pakistan is also being blamed for the recent bomb attack in Pulwama, which claimed the lives of 44 Indian soldiers. India promptly accused the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). JeM is a proscribed organisation. Its leader Maulana Masood Azhar was also named by India in the 2016 Pathankot attack. Though FM Qureshi condemned both the attacks in Iran and India, Pakistan is not trusted by the world.

The most undiplomatic statement during MBS’s trip to Pakistan came from Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir when he was asked why Iran is not part of the Islamic counter-terrorism military alliance. He accused Iran of being the “chief sponsor of terrorism” in the region. He had said, “Iran has been, since the revolution of 1979, the chief sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran established terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has been implicated in terrorist attacks in South America, in Europe and in Saudi Arabia. Iran has been implicated in smuggling explosives and weapons to terrorist groups.”

Meanwhile, this contradicted the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s statement that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have common views on a host of regional issues. Convergence on the most critical issue was not seen when the Saudi FM chose to allege that Iran was the chief promoter of terrorism in the region. To make such a statement from a third country is quite undiplomatic. I wonder whether the Pakistani FM had the courage to object to the statement made by his Saudi counterpart.

Pakistan has always remained indebted to Saudi Arabia because of the money it dishes out. Saudi Arabia can get away with murder because of the petrodollars it has. Even Trump admitted that he would not take any action against Saudi Arabia for killing Jamal Khashoggi as by pumping out more oil, Saudis are keeping the oil prices low and they have given orders worth $100 billion to the US military industrial complex.

The main beneficiaries of the recent visit by MBS, however, were the 2,107 Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails who will be released on Imran Khan’s impromptu request. The Crown Prince also reacted fast and by the next morning, the Pakistani prisoners’ release orders were given.

The writer is the author of What’s wrong with Pakistan?

Published in Daily Times, February 22nd 2019.