The ramifications of Saudi Arabia joining CPEC

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By Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
The significance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been multiplied by Saudi Arabia’s inclination to join the project. The participation of the Kingdom will have lasting political, economic, commercial and strategic benefits for both China and Pakistan.

CPEC, which was announced by President Xi Jinping in April 2015, is the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which includes six economic corridors that will transport goods, people and data across the Eurasian supercontinent. The corridor amplifies Pakistan’s pivotal role in the connectivity of West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. Though Pakistan and China are the main stakeholders, and therefore beneficiaries, of the project, other regional actors will also benefit from its success.

From the start, both Pakistan and China have expressed a desire for other parties to invest in CPEC. The involvement of other nations in the project automatically makes them stakeholders, aiding the expansion, implementation and prosperity of the project. Hence Saudi Arabia’s entry broadens its prospects and also assists in its connectivity to nations in West Asia.

During his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan succeeded in convincing the Saudi ruling elite to invest in CPEC. The Kingdom is the first country invited to do so. Riyadh’s positive response is economically encouraging and offers strategic benefits. Saudi investment will attract other investors and make the project more economically feasible and politically secure.

The details of the Saudi investment in CPEC are not available but it is speculated that the Kingdom will invest about $10 billion in different sectors in Pakistan. If it matures, it will be an enormous economic relief package for the country’s fragile economy. It also reconfirms that during the economic crisis, the Kingdom is ready to help Pakistan.

A high-level coordination committee has been constituted to work out the details of a grand economic partnership between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A high-level Saudi delegation, including the ministers for finance and energy and business chiefs, are due to visit Pakistan during the first week of October. They will discuss matters of trade and commerce and might announce details of the CPEC investment plan.

The Saudi investment will be aimed at developing the oil facilities at the port city of Gwadar. The city’s growth as an oil hub will be profitable for both China and Kingdom. The latter is one of the biggest exporters of oil, while the former has been the world’s largest consumer of oil since last year. The port’s development also contributes to the growth of Gwadar city.

Pakistan has been developing Gwadar port with the assistance of China. The port obviously holds immense opportunities for neighboring countries, as well as the entire Eurasian region. The successful development of the port will certainly profit Pakistan but it will also have enormous economic benefits for any foreign investors.

Islamabad maintains that without increasing economic co-operation in the region, the Central, West and South-Asian nations cannot resolve their economic challenges. Gwadar port is a nexus between CPEC and the Middle East. Its development contributes positively to the regional connectivity required for economic prosperity.

The critics of CPEC endlessly propagate the idea that the Chinese are investing in Gwadar port to convert it into their naval facility. Beijing maintains that the BRI and CPEC are purely commercial development projects. Chinese Ambassador to Islamabad Yao Jing said: “We don’t have any kind of military or strategic design for that. We don’t want to make the CPEC as such a kind of platform.”

The Saudi investment in CPEC, particularly in the construction of oil facilities at Gwadar, will help to nullify any suggestion of a military aspect to the project.

India, Iran and Afghanistan have been labouring to establish a new transit route linking the nations through Chabahar Port. This could service landlocked Afghanistan and also open a trade route for Indian goods and products to Afghanistan and Central Asia. With the construction of this new route, India would not only bypass Pakistan but also realize its decades-old dream of encircling its neighbor.

The convergence of the economic interests of Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan will further the ambitions of Chinese trade in the Middle East, and improve its role in the Indian Ocean. Beijing’s engagement with the Indian Ocean’s littoral nations could alarm both the Americans and the Indians; strategic planners in Washington and New Delhi have been working closely to balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Riyadh’s plan to be part of CPEC upset both.

In summary, Saudi involvement in CPEC will not only improve the Kingdom’s trade with Pakistan and China but it will connect the country with both landlocked Central Asia and Eurasia. In addition, it will revitalize strategic cooperation between Kingdom and Pakistan.

(The author Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: jaspal_99@hotmail.com)