President Asif Ali Zardari’s first official two-day trip to Saudi Arabia can well be described as a breakthrough of sorts in existing state of relations between the two governments ever since the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came into power in 208. It is a journey from an imperceptible indifferent state of bilateral exchanges to strong indications of warmth taking over. The change is of special significance to Islamabad which badly needs goodwill and cooperative attitude on part of a long-standing friend whose multifaceted support has been of great strength.
For most part of their history the two countries have enjoyed excellent bilateral relations. Close geographical proximity, historic trade ties, religious affinity and the complementary nature of economic needs, defence cooperation and strategic interaction have created a strong bondage of trust between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
In addition there is a convergence of views and interests of the two countries on most of the regional and international issues.
High-level visits from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia reflect the great warmth and depth of bilateral ties. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has been a beacon of solace and support to the Islamic world in general and Pakistan in particular whose well-being he has always held uppermost in his thoughts. Top level bilateral visits between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been frequent and of special significance to Pakistan. But of late there had been an undercurrent of lukewarm sentiments that has permeated relations despite the PPP government’s best efforts to restore traditional warmth and depth.
Unlike in the past the present government in Pakistan has not received the strong and generous assistance from Saudi Arabia in times of its worst economic distress. There has often been a lack of trust and confidence. President Zardari’s initiative in collaboration with the US in 2009 for a Friends of Pakistan forum met a low key Saudi response. The initiative itself faltered because of credibility problems and has since failed to take off despite dire economic situation virtually teetering to the brink faced by Pakistan. There has been no significant Saudi investment in Pakistan in recent years.
In marked contrast, Saudi Arabia responded with unprecedented eagerness to help Pakistan in 1998 when Nawaz Sharif invited Western wrath and sanctions by conducting atomic explosions. Pakistan got almost free dose of oil from Riyadh for several years. Gen. Parvez Musharraf also received warm backing from the Kingdom during power and even after his removal. Because of him even Nawaz Sharif was forced to halt campaign against him. Sharif himself has been Saudi favourite and was allowed to live in exile and prosper in building an economic fortune there after Gen. Musharraf ousted him in a military coup and almost brought him close to gallows. It was then Crown Prince Abdullah who arranged a compromise sparing Sharif’s life and allowing him live in 10-year forced exile in Jeddah. Sharif is also indebted to the King for his premature return to Pakistan despite Musharraf’s resistance after he permitted Benazir Bhutto’s comeback.
Things have, however, changed for the PPP government rapidly in recent months in the wake of convulsions in the Middle East.
Pakistan’s response has been cautious and balanced. It emphasised the importance of stability and peaceful political transitions through reforms and avoidance of violence. Much to Saudi satisfaction Pakistan played a significant role in curbing violence in Bahrain and permitted recruitment of several thousand ex-servicemen to help Bahrain tide over the uprising even while incurring wrath of Shia segments of the local population. Pakistan’s support has thus assumed a critical importance for the stability in the region.
President Zardari’s current trip to Saudi Arabia has come after some intense bilateral consultations and exchange of visits by key officials from both sides. Hina Rabbani Khar now elevated as foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia as a junior minister in May and was accorded an unusually warm reception with King Abdullah granting her audience in the presence of top aides and ministers. Interior minister Rehman Malik also made two useful trips and was received warmly.
On Wednesday President Zardari and the Saudi monarch in a comprehensive meeting held extensive discussions on bilateral ties, political situation in the Middle East and South Asian region and the fight against terrorism. Zardari reiterated Pakistan’s support to political stability and repudiated the use of violence for political transition. The King appreciated it and reaffirmed Saudi active support for resolution of problems of terrorism. It is apparent that the chill clouding the ties has evaporated.