In late October of this year, Pakistan’s Prime MInister Imran Khan made his second visit to Saudi Arabia where he spoke at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference before holding private meetings with de-facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as well as the elderly King Salman. Imran returned to Pakistan with a one year loan of $3 billion in addition to a deferred payment plan for oil purchases up to the value of an additional $3 billion. This tended to be reported as an aggregate $6 billion loan from the wealthy Arab Kingdom. On top of this, earlier today (21 December), Saudi Arabia’s ally the UAE agreed to give Pakistan a further $3 billion in the form of a bilateral bailout package.
Additionally, Riyadh confirmed its desire to hasten work on its investments in Gwadar where Saudi-ARAMCO plans to help build a new oil refinery. Saudi Arabia further pledged a commitment to cooperate on other CPEC related projects, thus offering Saudi Arabia a much sought direct gateway towards deeper integration in the Belt and Road initiative.
All of this amounts to a major win-win for a Pakistan that seeks investment in order to clear its current account deficit left by the previous government, while moreover, under Imran Khan, Pakistan looks to transform itself into a major investment destination as the long term potential of CPEC will continue to positively transform the nation. For Riyadh’s part, as Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its petro-economy while becoming more and more interested in Belt and Road related projects, investment in Pakistan and in Gwadar in particular fits in perfectly with Saudi Arabia’s medium and long term economic strategy.
Of course, this is not the fully story. The FII conference that Imran attended in Saudi Arabia was threatened with boycotts mainly from western businessmen and politicians, as it took place in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia claiming responsibility for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Making matters more potentially difficult for Pakistan was the fact that the leading campaigner against Riyadh in the context of the Khashoggi murder was Pakistan’s fraternal Turkish partner. And yet, just as Pakistan did not become involved in the Yemen conflict while also retaining neutrality in the ongoing Riyadh-Doha row, so too was Pakistan able to retain and indeed expand warm relations with Saudi Arabia while refraining from alienating Turkey.
Quite the opposite is in fact true. In November of this year Pakistan’s National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser recently met with Turkey’s Ambassador to Pakistan Ihsan Mustafa Yurdakul where the former offered a formal invitation to Turkey, asking Ankara to become an official party to CPEC. According to Qaiser,
“Pakistan highly values its relations with Turkey, and the new government desires to further strengthen relations between Islamabad and Ankara”.
In turn, the Turkish Ambassador stated,
“The Turkish people always consider Pakistan as their second home, and we wish to see this country always strong and prosperous”.
As Turkey has long been a vital component of Belt and Road, a new era of Turkey-Pakistan cooperation over CPEC could produce substantial long-term sustainable economic gains and other commercial, human-to-human and cultural opportunities for both long standing partners as well as China – a mutual partner to both Turkey and Pakistan.
Beyond this, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has just met with his Pakistani counterpart as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan during which time Imran spoke of his admiration for the economic transformation of Turkey achieved under the leadership of President Erdogan. Likewise, Akar spoke of the benefits of deeper cooperation on vital security issues between the two longstanding partners.
Of course, this comes fresh on the heels of news that early in 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will visit Pakistan while Mohammad bin Salman’s close ally, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan will also call on the Prime Minister.
What this demonstrates is that while much of the Ummah (the global Islamic community) is engaged in disputes and rows, Pakistan under Imran Khan has refused to take sides in the affairs of others. Imran Khan has held successful dialogue with Iranian officials, Qatari officials, Saudi and UAE officials as well as Turkish officials. Imran has also visited Malaysia whose Muslim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad held successful discussions with a Pakistan that ought to become more integrated into trading routs into ASEAN (the association of south east Asian nations).
When taken as a whole, Pakistan ought to be viewed as the kind of Switzerland of the Ummah in so far as Imran Khan has refused to be drawn into the disputes of others while at the same time offering to mediate in disputes as a neutral and friendly arbitrator. This is specifically the case in Yemen while likewise, Imran has rightly refused to be drawn into the Syria conflict.
Even in Afghanistan, one of the only Muslim majority countries with which Pakistan has long standing disputes, Imran has approached the matter with pragmatism and a realistic assessment of the fact that peace is needed in Afghanistan and this means that a positive Pakistani influence is needed throughout the long awaited all parties peace process that will require Kabul and the Taliban to sit down and agree on the long term future of the country.
Not only is neutrality a healthy prospect for a country looking to elevate is position among traditional allies and new partners, but Imran’s positions have actually helped to make Pakistan a more attractive investment to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey simultaneously. These nations know that as CPEC grows, Pakistan will become a major economic factor in south Asia and beyond and that as with any investment, the sooner one gets on-board the greater future returns will be paid on the initial investment. While some would argue that a few of these trends have their origin prior to the electoral victory of Imran Khan’s PTI, such an assessment negates the fact that prior to Imran Khan’s arrival, Pakistan was deprived of a leadership whose statements and actions resonated in the outside world – even among traditional allies. Before Imran, Pakistan had to sell itself. Now Pakistan has a profoundly influential spokesmen in a leadership roal – a man whose personality is so compelling that it simply cannot be ignored. This will pay vast dividends to Pakistan over the coming years.
For centuries when European kingdoms were at war with one another almost constantly, Switzerland was able to remain neutral while also becoming financially vital for the rest of warring Europe. Today, while disputes continue to foment throughout the wider Ummah, Pakistan can consolidate its position as a diplomatic power that maintains friendship with all, refrains from getting involved in the rivalries of others and is always there to assist in diplomatic mediation should this be respectfully requested.
This is a clear formula for long term economic success and enhanced diplomatic prestige (a key component of soft power). As Imran Khan is able to articulate these trends with supreme clarity, the future for Pakistan looks bright among all of its diverse partners both within and outside of the Ummah.