Imran Khan’s visit — a timely boost to a timeless partnership
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes at a time when the strategic partnership between the two countries is being called on to deal with important developments in the region. The US plans to leave Afghanistan in September, nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna, Iran’s regional activities, and joint counterterrorism efforts represent some of the issues that preoccupy both nations, along with economic cooperation and free trade prospects.
The Saudi-Pakistan special relationship has endured since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, and grown into a close and mutually supportive strategic partnership in the decades since. Defense, counterterrorism, and economic and cultural ties are four major pillars of the relationship. While there were times when the two countries may have had minor differences of opinion on some issues, those differences never impeded the growth of their strategic cooperation.
Defense cooperation is one of the cornerstones of the partnership. It includes all military services and is highlighted by the frequent meetings of their senior military leaders and joint military exercises between their forces. It is significant that Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to prepare for Khan’s three-day visit to the Kingdom. Bajwa met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the deputy prime minister and minister of defense of Saudi Arabia, as well as with Prince Khalid bin Salman, deputy minister of defense.
Counterterrorism is another important aspect of the partnership, as the two countries are leaders in fighting terrorism around the world. When Saudi Arabia called for the establishment of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in December 2015, Pakistan became one of its early supporters. Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, was tapped to be the first commander-in-chief of the coalition, which now has 41 members.
Economic cooperation is also central to the strength of Saudi-Pakistan partnership, most evident in the large number of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia, but including other aspects as well. The Pakistan government estimated that 2.6 million Pakistanis were living in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2017 — more than 29 percent of all Pakistanis living abroad and by far the largest community living outside the country.
The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states were home to 4.7 million Pakistanis, or about 54 percent of those living abroad. By comparison, only about 2 million were living in Europe, mostly in the UK, and 1 million in the US. Pakistanis account for about 7 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, and represent the second-largest expat community in the country after the Indian community.
Pakistani expats living in Saudi Arabia also contribute greatly to their home country’s development, a significant factor that has grown in importance in recent years. The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) reported $2.7 billion in remittances sent by Pakistanis abroad during March 2021, a 43 percent increase over the figure for the same period in 2020.
Last month, Khan tweeted: “The love and commitment of overseas Pakistanis to Pakistan is unparalleled. You sent over $2 billion for 10 straight months despite COVID-19, breaking all records. Your remittances rose to $2.7 billion in March, 43 percent higher than last year. So far this fiscal year, your remittances rose 26 percent.”
SBP has also posted impressive growth figures for remittances over the past year.
Of that total of remittances, the bank reported $1.6 billion came from GCC countries, or 54 percent of the total, during March 2021. The real figure may even be higher, as many Pakistani expats in the Gulf use informal channels to remit their earnings, and thus remain unaccounted for. Using SBP figures for March 2021, annualized, Pakistani remittances from Saudi Arabia will be more than $8 billion in 2021, with about $19 billion from all six GCC countries, representing about 7 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP), a significant indicator.
The Pakistan government estimated that 2.6 million Pakistanis were living in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2017 — more than 29 percent of all Pakistanis living abroad and by far the largest community living outside the country.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The GCC and Pakistan have been engaged in free trade negotiations for some time and hope to wrap talks up by the end of the year. In 2020, GCC-Pakistan trade stood at $12 billion. The GCC as a bloc was Pakistan’s second-biggest trading partner after China, in exports, imports and total merchandise trade — significant, but not commensurate with their combined GDP of about $2 trillion.
When concluded, the free trade agreement could contribute significantly to their economic ties, boosted by the complementarity of the two economies. Pakistan’s growing economy could provide a more significant destination for GCC energy and petrochemical exports, building on years of healthy trade growth in those products. Conversely, GCC countries provide a thriving market for Pakistan’s exports. The presence of about 5 million Pakistani expats in the GCC should make it easier to promote Pakistani products in the region.
The large Pakistani community in Saudi Arabia and the hundreds of thousands making a pilgrimage to the holy places annually provide an important cultural link as well. Those people-to-people ties have produced a mutually favorable image for both countries. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Pakistanis hold the most favorable perception of Saudis in the world, with nine out of 10 respondents viewing Saudi Arabia favorably.
In 2019, the Saudi crown prince made Pakistan the first stop of his Asia tour. While there he said that “our Pakistani brothers, of whom over 2 million live in the Kingdom, contribute significantly to the development of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,” and also praised their “genuine and effective” participation in Saudi development projects, “especially in the large expansion of the holy places in Makkah and Madinah.”
Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia provides an opportunity to boost Saudi-Pakistan’s strategic partnership in all its aspects. It could not have happened at a more appropriate time.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1