Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will begin his maiden two-day state visit to Pakistan Sunday, where he is expected to announce investment projects worth billions of dollars.
The rare high-profile trip, however, comes amidst Pakistan’s dangerously escalating tensions with archival India over last week’s deadly suicide bombing in the disputed Kashmir region.
New Delhi accuses Islamabad of playing a role in the attack that killed more than 40 Indian security forces. Pakistani officials deny the charges as baseless.
Crown Prince Salman, known as MBS in short, will be accompanied by a high-powered delegation, including members of the royal family, key ministers and 35 leading businessmen. He is scheduled to hold meetings with Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistani military chief, General Qatar Javed Bajwa.
Pakistan maintains strong political, cultural, economic and defense ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom hosts more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates, and is a key source of oil supplies for Islamabad – on deferred payments, as well cash grants to help Pakistan’s often ailing economy.
“The historic visit will take the bilateral relations to the new heights,” Finance Minister Asad Umar said before MBS was due to arrive in Pakistan.
During Crown Prince Salman’s visit the two countries will sign eight agreements in various sectors, including energy and an estimated $10 billion oil refinery in Gwadar where China has recently built and activated a major seaport.
The unprecedented Saudi investment is being viewed by Prime Minister Khan’s nascent government as a major boost for Pakistan, which is facing an economic crisis and balance of payments pressure.
Investment Minister Haroon Sharif said the government has also arranged a conference of visiting Saudi businessmen with their Pakistani counterparts to promote private partnership and investments.
High Regional Tensions
But last week’s deadly suicide car bombings in Kashmir and in a border region of neighboring Iran have raised regional tensions. Tehran has accused Pakistan-based anti-Iran militants for orchestrating the attack that killed 27 personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The Indian government has vowed to punish and internationally isolate Islamabad, while Iranian leaders are demanding Pakistan bring to justice perpetrators of the bombing in Sistan-Baluchistan border province.
Pakistani leaders have rejected Indian allegations as unfounded and pledged cooperation to investigate them provided New Delhi shared “evidence” with Islamabad.
“It is preposterous to think that Pakistan can be “isolated”,” Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua said in a special briefing to foreign diplomats on the rising bilateral tensions.
Pakistan maintains close counterterrorism cooperation with Iran and officials say bilateral ties have significantly improved in recent years. Officials reject suggestions Islamabad’s deepening ties with Riyadh are undermining relations with Tehran.
Former Pakistani diplomat, Asif Durrani, insisted the militant attacks in Iran and Indian Kashmir could be an attempt to overshadow the royal visit and put Pakistan under pressure.
“Iranian and Indian accusations against Pakistan over these incidents, even if for varied reasons, smack off ulterior motives to malign Pakistan despite the fact that these incidents wouldn’t benefit Pakistan in any way,” noted Durrani who was Islamabad’s ambassador to Tehran until a few months ago.
Durrani noted that the Saudi prince’s visit has assumed extra importance due to the prevailing situation in the region, especially in the backdrop of Riyadh-Tehran Iran rift.
Pakistan has always walked a tightrope while trying to maintain a balance between Iran, and Saudi Arabia
Sunni-dominated Pakistan has deep ties to Saudi Arabia in all fields, but it shares a porous border with Shi’ite Iran, stretching over 900 kilometers. A fifth of Pakistan’s more than 200 million residents are Shiite Muslims who maintain close cultural and religious ties with the Iranian nation.