Then-prime minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ride in a carriage during a welcome ceremony in Islamabad in February 2019. Photo: AFP / Bandar al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace

The two-day visit to Pakistan by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ended on Monday with much-needed financial and diplomatic support for Islamabad.

The Crown Prince, generally known as MBS, staged a joint press conference with Prime Minister Imran Khan before departing for the rest of his three-nation tour, which will take him to India and China this week.

The feel-good factor of the visit was encapsulated by Saudi Arabia releasing 2,107 Pakistani prisoners following a personal request to MBS by Khan in his welcome address at the Prime Minister’s House on Sunday.

MBS’s visit was headlined by US$20 billion worth of Saudi investments in Pakistan, which includes a $10-billion oil refinery near Gwadar port. Several Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) were also signed between the two countries on trade, investment, power generation, renewable energy, mineral exploitation and sport.

Saudi investment comes at a time when Pakistan faces a balance of payment crisis and is looking to avoid going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a 13th bailout program. Similarly, energy agreements are designed to help Pakistan bridge a crippling shortfall of gas in the long run.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, second left in white, and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, right, walk with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after his arrival in Islamabad. Photo: AFP / Pakistan PM’s House

Abdul Razak Dawood, an advisor to the Prime Minister on Commerce, said: “We are extremely happy that the Saudis have come and invested in the country. Now we want Pakistani investors to do the same. The world is now looking to invest here. Pakistan is now open for business. Now we need to make sure that both investors and the country profit.”

Dawood also confirmed that following the agreements with Saudi Arabia another large investment from the UAE will follow soon.

Tense standoff with India

While the investment and MoUs were agreed prior to the Saudi Crown Prince formally signing them in Islamabad, MBS’s visit coincided with a tense standoff between Pakistan and India after a bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir that claimed 44 lives last Thursday.

Sources confirmed that Pakistan decided it would not take action against Jaish-e-Mohammad, the terror group behind the Kashmir attack, after it received reassurances of support from both China and Saudi Arabia.

The extent of MBS’s diplomatic support for Islamabad was evident in the joint statement issued by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The statement released in the Pakistani media mentions PM Khan briefing “the Crown Prince on the grave human rights violations in IOK [Indian Occupied Kashmir] and the need for resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”

However, Asia Times has learnt that the statement was released through local media, whereas the original joint statement does not mention the word ‘Kashmir’.

Sources said the Saudi Crown Prince was clear on the fact that Indian actions in Kashmir would not be mentioned in the joint statement, despite Pakistani leaders wanting that. That was understandable, given MBS flew on to New Delhi to enhance bilateral cooperation with India, where the Modi government was expected to press him for strong condemnation of cross-border terrorism.

Despite the omission of Kashmir from the official statement, Islamabad felt it had won the diplomatic support that it needed after the joint statement underlined the need to “avoid politicization of the UN listing regime”.

“This is as clear a reference as possible to India pushing for [Jaish-e-Mohammad chief] Masood Azhar being listed as a globally designated terrorist at the United Nations. This is a major diplomatic win for Pakistan amid baseless Indian allegations,” a senior diplomat said.

MBS avoids direct flight from Pakistan to India

While there are diplomatic gains from MBS’s visit and statements in Pakistan, observers suggest a clearer picture will emerge following the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to India, where he could issue a statement that New Delhi might also interpret in its favor.

However, diplomatic sources confirmed that MBS has told both Pakistan and India that Saudi Arabia would not let ties with either side be compromised by the bilateral conflict. Indeed, the Crown Prince even flew back to Riyadh first after India objected to a direct arrival from Pakistan.

As reported by Asia Times in the lead-up to MBS’s Asia tour, Riyadh’s support for Islamabad – both diplomatic and financial – has come in exchange for Pakistan’s enhanced military involvement with Saudi Arabia.

Details of the new military role were conveyed last week by General (retired) Raheel Sharif, a former Pakistan Army chief who now leads the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). This arrangement was reaffirmed during MBS’s meeting with the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Monday.

Military sources say that Pakistan will increase its number of troops as part of the bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia, while boosting its military involvement in IMCTC.

Iran warns its neighbor

These developments have been watched closely by Iran. Tehran openly warned Islamabad against harboring Jaish-al-Adl, the jihadist group that killed 27 of its Revolutionary Guards in a suicide bombing last week. Observers suspect Pakistan would offer little resistance in backing the Saudi-led Islamic Coalition, which is largely believed to be aligned against Iran and its allies.

In a joint press conference with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said Iran was the “world’s chief sponsor of terrorism”.

That seems to suggest that Islamabad may believe that alienating Tehran is a small price to pay in exchange for all that Riyadh is offering.

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