Saudi-Pak ties – a true game-changer

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By Shaukat Aziz

SAUDI Crown Prince Mohammed concluded his historic first visit to Pakistan last week. It is important to reflect on bilateral ties and how they can be deepened and broadened to become a true game-changer.

For decades, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a strong and close holistic friendship. Whenever Pakistan has faced challenges, Saudi Arabia has stood shoulder to shoulder and helped financially and diplomatically. For Pakistanis, the Kingdom holds immense cultural and religious importance. The presence of Makkah and Madinah makes Saudi Arabia one of the most significant countries in the Islamic world. Pakistanis, and Muslims in general, have a special reverence for the Kingdom and its leadership, and many Pakistanis visit every year for pilgrimage and other religious activities. 

With the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques, a valuable contribution to the Muslim Ummah continues to be made. This has been one of the most massive construction projects in history, inspiring in both its scale and ambition, and I have witnessed the difference that has been made to the experience of making pilgrimage there. The two holy sites are now a feat of logistics, with a high-speed rail link and other ambitious infrastructure under construction that will allow it to accommodate 2 million people for several weeks a year. Other countries can learn much from such a wide-reaching development, which brings benefits not only for the Saudi people but for the whole region. 

Politically, Saudi Arabia is one of the most significant countries in the Middle East, considered by many to be the voice of the Muslim world. King Salman, who is also Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, has an important global role to play, and has already demonstrated the ability to work with major powers to solve issues and challenges. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia already cooperate both bilaterally and through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is headquartered in the Kingdom. However, there is more the two countries could aim to do together in the field of global diplomacy. The role of the OIC and the Islamic Development Bank can be broadened to play a stronger role in both inter-Muslim cooperation and between the Islamic world and other faiths.

The crown prince has undertaken a notable program of structural and social reforms in Saudi Arabia, which are already having a transformative effect. Since I first lived there while working as managing director of the Saudi-American Bank (Samba), I have seen the Kingdom change substantially. The banking sector has really developed into a modern and reformed business. In the energy sector, several industrial complexes have been set up to process hydrocarbons. There has been substantial economic growth and the country’s infrastructure has developed substantially, with two newer cities, Jubail and Yanbu, becoming models of industrial growth for the world. There is also potential for expansion in tourism, culture and other new areas of economic activity, which can create jobs and further economic growth. 

Pakistan can benefit from the reforms that the crown prince has already brought in, as well as those that are planned. For example, as the Saudi economy expands, it will require more manpower. The Kingdom is already one of the biggest employers of Pakistani expats — there are more than a million Pakistanis living and working there in all sectors and at all levels, from management positions to construction workers. For example, one of the first governors of the Kingdom’s central bank, Anwar Ali, was a Pakistani who played a significant part in initially developing the country’s banking system. Looking ahead, Pakistan could become a major supplier of engineers and other workers for the development being undertaken in Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan could also benefit from the expertise, technology and research that are being advanced in Saudi Arabia thanks to the new reforms. In recent years, the Kingdom has taken steps to improve its infrastructure, expand its education system and gradually  move toward having a more open environment, while continuing to respect Islamic values and traditions. The country has an active program for its youth to study both locally and abroad. Universities such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology are truly world-class, and attract professors from across the globe. Exporting to Pakistan the knowledge that has come with carrying out these developments and reforms — particularly in infrastructure and education — would greatly benefit its people.

Historically, there have been close military links between our two countries: Pakistan provides the Saudis with training and advisers, while the armies, navies and air forces of the two nations collaborate in joint exercises. The number of joint exercises and training programs carried out by the two countries could increase to further strengthen bilateral ties, and contribute to regional stability. Reinforcing security cooperation and redoubling our joint efforts against terrorism are also necessary.

In recent years, Pakistan has been undergoing a significant program of investment in its infrastructure, largely as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It has seen the development of Pakistan’s roads, railroads, ports and digital highways, and has been a significant boost to the country’s connectivity. There are a number of investment opportunities for Saudi entrepreneurs in Pakistan, which can be a significant market for the Kingdom’s private sector. Pakistan already has the labor supply and raw materials, including energy resources, but could benefit from Saudi expertise. Energy presents a particular opportunity for investment, from traditional sources to developing alternative energy projects.

The upcoming visit has the potential to offer a blueprint for a bright future of cooperation. While historically there have been many examples of strong ties and commonality of interests between the two countries, there are still many opportunities to bring them closer together. During this visit, the crown prince and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will be able to set the tone for how this historic relationship can progress. 

When I recently met with the crown prince, we discussed these topics and the need for the Ummah to focus on growth. I am optimistic that Saudi Arabia will work toward building even closer ties with Pakistan. Linkages and interdependencies are the true safeguards of peace, progress and prosperity.

(The author Shaukat Aziz is former prime minister of Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, following five years as finance minister from 1999.)