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Can Imran Khan Change the Course of Saudi-Pakistani Relations?

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s relationship is walking a fine line.

By , a multimedia journalist covering politics, health, and social issues in South Asia.
Billboards feature Mohammed bin Salman and Imran Khan.
Pakistani commuters ride past billboards showing portraits of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on a roadside ahead of the prince’s arrival in Islamabad on Feb. 15, 2019. Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

The decades-long relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is treading on thin ice. Riyadh is looking to diversify its oil-dependent economy by further engaging with other South Asian countries while Islamabad struggles to expand relations with its long-standing partner beyond security cooperation and cultural ties.

In the latest attempt to revive the relationship, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia today for a three-day visit with Saudi leadership. Ahead of Khan, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, reached Riyadh on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a fresh start.

The Pakistani army’s media wing said Bajwa discussed regional security and bilateral defense, among other matters, in meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and others. Meanwhile, Tahir Ashrafi, Khan’s special aide on religious harmony, told Foreign Policy talks will cover a green deal; enhanced trade cooperation; and collaborations in media, information, and cultural exchange. He said they will also discuss a joint strategy against terrorism.

Islamabad and Riyadh have had a strategic partnership for decades. Historically, the kingdom has almost always come to Pakistan’s financial rescue. Since the 1960s, Pakistan has received more aid from Saudi Arabia than any other country outside the Arab world and has almost never repaid any loans. In turn, Islamabad has provided military aid and expertise to Riyadh. “Deep inside their hearts, the kingdom knows that they can count on Pakistan’s support in case its security comes under threat. A historic bond of trust exists on security cooperation,” said Khan Hasham bin Saddique, a former Pakistani ambassador to the kingdom.

When defense is taken out of the picture, Pakistan has little to offer to the kingdom.

Lately, however, Islamabad and Riyadh have been less in sync. The foundation cracked six years ago when Islamabad decided to sit out of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s ongoing war—a public snub that irked Saudi leadership. When defense cooperation is taken out of the picture, it turns out, Pakistan has little to offer to the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia began seeking closer economic ties and increased military cooperation with other South Asian countries, including Pakistan’s archrival, India. In April 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi kick-started a new range of bilateral cooperation with a visit to Riyadh.

As New Delhi and Riyadh have grown closer, Islamabad, witnessing a tumultuous shift in its own relationship with Riyadh, set out to fix it. Losing the favor of one of the strongest Muslim nations would mean an outcry among religious Pakistanis at home—alongside economic and security drawbacks. Islamabad has realized it must increase Saudi stakes in Pakistan. It can do so by offering—and following through on—economic opportunities to Saudi investors and becoming a part of the kingdom’s bid to diversify its economy. And if Khan plays his cards right, the damage control launched shortly after the fallout over Yemen may finally reach its conclusion during his weekend visit.

Islamabad’s bid to reset relations started in 2018. First, Pakistan essentially put its flag in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen by sending troops on a “training and advise mission.” “It was good for optics,” said a Pakistani foreign office ex-official privy to the development who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

Then, looking to diversify the ties beyond security cooperation, former Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi negotiated an economic and cultural package in 2018 that promoted social and cultural exchange programs; increased the quota for the Pakistani workforce in construction projects in the kingdom; and secured Saudi investment for regasified liquefied natural gas plants, an oil refinery, and alternate energy.

The table was set for a closer relationship. Then Pakistan got a new prime minister. “After much lobbying, we ensured Imran Khan’s first foreign visit was to meet King Salman bin Abdul Aziz,” the ex-official added. “But he arrived in Riyadh clueless and unprepared about maintaining foreign relations.”

A month later, opportunity struck when several countries, including the United States, Britain, and France, boycotted Mohammed bin Salman’s “Davos in the Desert” over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pakistan’s presence at the October 2018 event helped it secure a $6.2 billion package from the kingdom—$3 billion of cash assistance and $3.2 billion worth of oil and gas supplies on deferred payment.

“Our premier and foreign minister are too keen on speaking their mind.”

The financial support pulled Pakistan out of a looming economic crisis. Come February 2019, Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Islamabad to sign the economic and cultural package negotiated between the two countries in early 2018.

Although this seemed, on the surface, to paint a triumphant picture for Pakistani-Saudi ties, the kingdom’s annoyance with Pakistani leadership was growing. “Our premier and foreign minister are too keen on speaking their mind,” said the ex-official. Before leaving for an October 2018 summit, Khan expressed concern over the Khashoggi murder but added that Pakistan is “desperate” for a Saudi loan. Next, he publicly offered to mediate a Saudi-Iran truce. “If there is one thing the Saudis hate, it is mediation,” said the ex-official. “Besides, we are in no position to mediate as we have no leverage over Iran,” Another former ambassador, Abdul Basit, echoed the risks of such meddling. “There is no reason for us to weaken our relations with the kingdom in our misplaced notion to be neutral between Riyadh and Tehran,” he said.

“To their credit, the Saudis have never castigated Pakistan publicly” despite these slights, said the ex-official. They’ve privately conveyed their annoyance to the Pakistani military leadership.

Amid all this, Khan also decided to attend a December 2018 conference in Kuala Lumpur, organized by three countries who share a poor relationship with Saudi Arabia—Turkey, Malaysia, and Iran. Islamabad had to withdraw at the last moment after Riyadh warned of serious consequences, journalist Kamran Yousaf said.

Tensions increased in August 2020, when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned Islamabad would look elsewhere for regional support if Saudi Arabia did not call a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on Kashmir. Riyadh responded to the threat by recalling the $3 billion soft loan and not renewing the $3.2 billion oil and gas credit that had expired in May 2020.

For the first time in history, the kingdom sought its money back from Pakistan.

Saddique believes the trouble lies with Islamabad’s reliance on security cooperation as the basis of Pakistani-Saudi ties. “Our economic relations are below par,” he said. “Our ties in the Middle East are a spinoff of defense diplomacy.”

He is not wrong. The projects inked in the February 2019 deal have yet to materialize. Although Pakistan’s foreign ministry has the power to sign trade deals with other countries, it cannot enforce them as it has no authority over the country’s other ministries, resulting in the project being delayed.

In turn, while bilateral trade volume between the two countries was valued at $2.181 billion during the 2019 to 2020 financial year, Saudi Arabia’s trade volume with India was valued at $33.09 billion over the same period.

But just because New Delhi is rushing ahead doesn’t mean there’s no hope for officials in Islamabad to improve relations with their erstwhile friends in Riyadh.

This year, amid hectic closed-door talks between Islamabad and Riyadh, Pakistan got out of paying back the remaining $1 billion of the $3 billion soft loan and renewed talks on establishing an oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.

In addition, in March, after a 15-month-long pause, Khan and Mohammed bin Salman touched base to discuss parallels between the Clean Green Pakistan campaign and the kingdom’s Green Middle East Initiative—a discussion that ended in an invitation to visit Riyadh.

Even so, unless Islamabad walks the walk on economic deals signed between the two countries, a perpetual cloud of uncertainty will loom over the ties. Especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pakistan must implement bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia to boost its economy. This weekend, at least, is a good place to start.

Correction, May 10, 2021: A previous version misstated the city Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan traveled to.

Niha Dagia is a multimedia journalist covering politics, health, and social issues in South Asia. Twitter: @nhd00