Imran Khan and Mohammad bin Salman: a Win-Win Relationship That Few Anticipated

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have always had a close relationship, but recent years have challenged this both in a material sense and in terms of perception. As Saudi Arabia continued to grow more cash rich over the decades, some in Pakistan felt as though Riyadh was taking advantage of the special relationship due to wealth which seemingly allowed Saudi Arabia to expect Pakistan to automatically grant its every request. Secondly, as Pakistan continues to move into a direction of geopolitical non-alignment, some felt that Saudi Arabia would come to resent the fact that Pakistan would no longer be locked into iron clad bilateral alliances with any single nation.

For some in Riyadh, Pakistan’s commitment to military neutrality in the Yemen conflict was a sign that the special relationship was under threat. In reality, the special relationship was not under threat but merely evolving on both sides. As Naya Pakistan is defined internationally as a country that seeks friendship with all, conflict with none and seeks to mediate rather than take sides in disputes among mutual partners, Imran Khan has proved to be a master diplomat who is capable of balancing relations between multiple rival nations including Turkey and Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Imran Khan has also appropriately balanced relations between China and the United States, whilst also welcoming Russia into its positive role in an Afghan peace process that continues to proceed along largely Pakistani authored lines – something that not only Russia accepts (to the surprise of those with memories of the 1980s and 1990s), but one which even Trump’s United States has come to understand.¬†

Saudi Arabia too is going through multiple changes under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. While Saudi’s internal changes under the young Crown Prince have been the focus of a great deal of international attention, Saudi Arabia is also strengthening its geo-economic partnerships to the east. This includes new and growing Saudi-Chinese relations, Saudi-Russian relations and even Saudi-Indian relations. However, as Pakistan was Saudi Arabia’s first and foremost eastern partner, it retains a special significance for Riyadh and moreover, one that transcends mere symbolism and fraternal language.

During the height of the Jamal Khashoggi affair in 2018, Naya Pakistan was able to expand its commercial ties with Riyadh whilst simultaneously courting Turkey. This itself was a great achievement that may not have been possible without the fresh PTI government. Now, the Saudi Crown Prince has specifically stated that on his first eastern tour, he has chosen Pakistan to be his first official visit to a country located to the east of Saudi Arabia.

After Imran Khan personally met Mohammad bin Salman at the airport, the two spoke at Prime Minister House. The Crown Prince stated that Pakistan felt like his home and that the two nations will continually strengthen their friendship. The Crown Prince further called Pakistan a “dear country”, before saying:

“We believe that Pakistan is going to be a very, very important country in the coming future and we want to be sure we are part of that. Pakistan today has a great future in store with a great leadership”.

The Crown Prince further said to Prime Minister Imran Khan “consider me Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia“.

In this sense, the Crown Prince is well aware that whilst in prior decades, previous Saudi and Pakistani leadership saw the special relationship in terms of security and and a south Asian migrant labour force for Saudi infrastructure, now, Riyadh realises that because of CPEC and related projects, Pakistan is a strategically located hub of commerce that is destined for rapid but sustainable development as its economy stabilises and expands on a sustainable model that will continue to learn from China’s success.

This is why the $20 billion worth of investments that Riyadh has pledged to Pakistan will end up helping Saudi Arabia to diversify its own economic portfolio in-line with the Crown Prince’s far reaching Vision 2030 campaign for economic expansion outside of the oil industry. Hence, the events in Islamabad represent the renaissance in a true win-win relationship that will aid the development goals of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia simultaneously.

In this sense, Imran Khan has triumphed in securing the trust, friendship and long term strategic interests of the cash rich Kingdom, whilst Mohammad bin Salman has found a reliable partner for a new economic era in the form of the PTI government.

But beyond securing a win-win economic victory, the Crown Prince’s visit to Pakistan also counts as one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest soft power victories in decades. Prior to the Crown Prince’s visit, the seemingly unlikely trio of India, Israel and Iran collectively heaped scorn upon Pakistan. India has foolishly but predictably blamed an indigenous fedayeen attack against Indian occupation forces in Kashmir on Pakistan, whilst Iran and India later joined Modi’s proverbial election bandwagon. At the same time, Iran has astonishingly blamed Pakistan for a terror attack on its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces, in spite of the clear reality that Iran and Pakistan share not only a common border but a common enemy among Baloch ethno-separatists.

Overall, Iran appears to be venting its frustrations at the fact that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have good relations, by perversely parroting India’s predictable black propaganda against Pakistan. Making matters all the more awkward is the fact that whilst the Saudi Crown Prince has said that Pakistan has a special place in his heart, as a generally pragmatic leader, he also seeks good economic relations with India. In this sense, whilst Iman Khan and Mohammad bin Salman have pivoted their countries towards greater geopolitical multipolarity, Iran has fallen into a carefully laid out Indian authored trap. This trap has lead to Tehran to adopt a disappointing zero sum mentality against a Pakistan. This is the case in spite of the fact that Pakistan is a country whose doors to friendship with Iran remain open under Imran Khan, just as Pakistan maintains friendship with Turkey and Saudi Arabia simultaneously.

In this sense, Iran is trying its best to shut Imran Khan’s door of friendship, whilst Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has walked through that door and embraced Pakistan with open arms. Of course, Mohammad bin Salman’s final destination on his eastern trip is to China. This itself could represent a win-win-win outcome for China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As Riyadh looks to cultivate a proactive investor’s relationship in CPEC related projects, Riyadh’s CPEC investment goals will benefit not only Pakistan in a direct sense, but will benefit China’s long term goal which aims at ever greater multilateral Belt and Road connectivity and diversification.

Overall, the naysayers who once spoke of Pakistan’s economic humiliation and Saudi Arabia’s post-Khashoggi desperation, have been roundly silenced by the events which have unfolded in Islamabad. Imran Khan is fast becoming a global master of the art of win-win diplomacy whilst Mohammad bin Salman, unlike some of his predecessors, realises that Pakistan is ultimately an prime investment destination for Saudi money and one that moreover will help Riyadh to achieve its own modern development goals.

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