Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (R) during his visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 8, 2021. Saudi Royal Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Pakistan-Saudi Arabia ties are back on track after a rough patch, as both long-time allies put aside geopolitics and ideology to focus on geo-economics.

When Pakistan’s military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan recently visited Saudi Arabia, they had one main agenda point: re-establishing relations after a year of turmoil and in light of Islamabad’s “new” foreign policy approach.  

Bilateral tensions erupted in August last year when Saudi Arabia pushed back against Pakistan’s persistent demand for an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit on the situation in Kashmir by demanding Islamabad’s prompt repayment of a US$3 billion loan and suspension of a separate $3.2 billion oil credit facility.

Pakistan was forced to borrow $1 billion from China to repay the first installment of the Saudi loan, which was originally scheduled to be paid in 2021. In December 2020, Pakistan repaid another $1 billion with relations still in a deep freeze.

Between 2018 and 2019, Pakistan-Saudi ties were cordial. Khan visisted Saudi Arabia twice between July and October 2018 while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Pakistan in February 2019, a visit that signaled a new high point of brotherly ties.

The crown prince left with a pledge to invest more than $20 billion in Pakistan, including an Aramco oil refinery and a petrochemical complex in the port city of Gwadar.

However, when India officially annexed Kashmir in August 2019, Pakistan found itself in a scenario in which Saudi support – which never arrived – for Pakistan’s Kashmir policy assumed paramount significance.

Saudi Arabia decided to distance itself from the Kashmir issue, with its leadership refusing to entertain Pakistan’s calls for an OIC summit on the issue to tackle India’s “expansionist plans.” Saudi leaders, critics said, refused to prioritize Kashmir over their own deep economic ties with India.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (R) at the airport during his visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 8, 2021. Photo: Saudi Royal Council / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Trade between Saudi Arabia and India stood at $28 billion in 2019. And, when the Saudi crown prince visited India in February 2019, only a few days after his visit to Pakistan, he not only announced $100 billion of new investments in India, but also agreed, without naming Pakistan, to help India fight regional “extremism and terrorism.”

Therefore, when India annexed Kashmir and Pakistan decided to push back with support from its “brotherly” Islamic countries, the Saudis were found lacking any enthusiasm, putting Pakistan’s diplomatic onslaught in serious jeopardy.

This was followed by a period of frigid relations during which no high-profile visits took place. Bajwa was dispatched in August 2020 to Saudi Arabia on a damage control mission when Pakistan’s foreign minister criticized Saudi Arabia for its “lackluster” approach to Kashmir but there was no breakthrough.

It was not until this month when a serious effort to repair ties was initiated once again when Pakistan’s army chief visited Saudi Arabia and met top officials to help prepare the ground for Prime Minister Khan’s visit a few days later.

Both countries have now decided to redefine their ties with an emphasis on trade and economics. While the visit was marked by the usual announcements on trade and investment, of particular importance was that Kashmir did not feature at all.

Khan was received by the crown prince and it seems that both countries were able to develop some sense of the need to redefine their ties in ways that left minimum room for divergence or for contentious issues such as Kashmir to cause disruptions.

This would allow each enough flexibility to pursue their interests, even if it involves developing ties with rival countries. While Saudi Arabia has been developing deep economic ties with India, Pakistan has recently built strong ties with Saudi rival Turkey, not to mention Iran.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife (C) performing the Umrah pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. Photo: by Ahmed Nureldine/ SPA / AFP

Saudi Arabia remains a key destination for Pakistani labor. Despite recent sour ties, Saudi Arabia – which hosts 1.9 million Pakistanis – topped Pakistan’s list of countries with the highest foreign remittances.

The Bajwa-Imran visit also served to convince the Saudis to delay the timetable for repayment of the remaining $1 billion loan owed.

The rapprochement with Saudi Arabia underscores the evolving political thinking in Pakistan, in which the military establishment led Bajwa is prioritizing the economy over geopolitics and traditional ideologically oriented relations with brethren Islamic countries.

In his key-note speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue in March 2021, Bajwa outlined what has since come to be called a “geo-economically oriented foreign policy approach”, a vision that places regional integration, economic development and human security at the heart of Pakistan’s core foreign policy objectives and foreign relations.

While this is not to suggest that Pakistan will be able to shield itself completely from geopolitical issues, including Kashmir, the brewing civil war-like scenario in neighboring Afghanistan and the emerging Cold War between the US and China, it will be less interested in using such issues to define its relations with countries like Saudi Arabia.

In fact, Bajwa’s stated resolve to “bury the past and move forward” must have come as good news for the Saudis, who have been trying to redefine their own foreign policy at a time when their principal ally, the US, has taken a step back from Riyadh under Biden.

US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a more skeptical stance on Saudi Arabia than the outgoing Donald Trump administration. Image: AFP

At the same time, Saudi ambitions to lead the Muslim world are coming under increasing pressure from its other erstwhile allies, including the UAE, who are increasingly positioning themselves as leading players in the Gulf and beyond.

Saudi Arabia’s evolving rapprochement with Iran and its partial rapprochement with Qatar also show that the kingdom is undergoing its own “bury the past” moment. Part of this shift is being informed by the growing Saudi need to diversify its economy away from reliance on oil.

It also comes as plans to implement its “Vision 2030” hit certain geopolitical bumps in the road.