The strength of the strategic Saudi-Pakistani relationship was illustrated by the overwhelmingly warm reception Prime Minister Imran Khan received at Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah on Wednesday. Yes, a Pakistani premier choosing the Kingdom for his first international trip is the norm, but the sight of Khan in the banqueting hall alongside King Salman —Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — was nevertheless a deeply reassuring sign.
Looking around the hall, it seemed that all the hot air surrounding Khan’s election had suddenly vanished. Some fake news reports had speculated that Pakistan’s new leader (who had built his popularity on the promise of reform and change) would break with protocol and favour Iran over Saudi Arabia as his maiden foreign destination.
However, it seems to me that Khan is determined to prove that he meant what he told Arab News before his election. In an exclusive interview with our Asia Bureau Chief Baker Atyani last July, he pledged even stronger ties with Saudi Arabia.
Of course, it is only a month since Khan assumed office, so it would be unfair to make a final assessment. In particular, analysts familiar with the political scene in Islamabad say Khan will need time to learn the ropes; possibly more than most of his predecessors, since he is not one of the “usual suspects” to occupy high office.
As a journalist who has interviewed him twice, I believe Khan deserves that time, and the space to fulfill his agenda — but then he must strain every sinew to communicate it. After all, it cannot be denied that there is a degree of ambiguity surrounding his premiership —understandable given that even in cricket-mad Pakistan it is not common to have a renowned former cricketer as prime minister.
From a Saudi perspective, there is no lack of understanding of how important the relationship with Islamabad is; the Kingdom has been, and always will be, committed to standing by Pakistan in its economical crises. However, what the new Saudi leadership seeks, as with all its allies, is a much deeper and more meaningful relationship.
Pakistan can be a valuable partner in supporting Vision 2030, which will create many mutual opportunities. There are also vital religious, economic, cultural and military ties that can be built upon and developed to greater heights — but this requires out-of-the-box thinking on both sides.
What is different from before is that both countries now have men at the helm who are determined on change, reform and fighting corruption: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Imran Khan. This is why much hope rests on the meeting between the two that took place shortly after King Salman’s luncheon. To continue the cricket analogy, this meeting was The Ashes of regional diplomacy. It is what comes next that will determine if Khan is as successful a politician as he was a cricketer.
The author Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas)