New avenues of cooperation
Bilateral relations need constant nurturing and renewal to maintain their resilience and strength. The bond between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is a relationship that has evolved and gained greater strength over time. In the beginning, their interaction was mainly of a spiritual nature, symbolized by the annual pilgrimage. In the 1970’s, these relations saw two additional components that gave a great boost to bilateral cooperation. The Pakistani workforce, from high level professionals to blue collar workers, started contributing their share in the phenomenal development activities in the Kingdom. And defense cooperation, mainly based on joint training, followed suit.
Establishment of the Organization of Islamic cooperation (OIC) in 1969 was an immediate result of the desecration of Al Aqsa Mosque. This Jeddah based organization accorded top priority to the Palestinian issue. In this, Pakistan had both human and spiritual stakes and its empathy with the Palestinian people resonated at all relevant forums, the Al Quds Committee in particular.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan saw more Saudi-Pak political cooperation in international multilateral diplomatic moots. The Kashmir problem resurfaced in 1989 when local people resisted rigged elections. Saudi Arabia became an active member of the OIC Kashmir Contact Group.
Whether it was the earthquake of 2005 or the devastating floods of 2010, the Kingdom was always in the vanguard of nations offering humanitarian assistance. Fast forward to 2021, and the Royal Saudi Air Force is actively participating in the international military exercise currently being hosted by the Pakistan Air Force. Since the Kingdom has a vast area, its center of defense gravity lies in its air power. Regular bilateral as well as multinational military exercises help in securing the region from external threats and ensuring its peace and stability.
Whether it was the earthquake of 2005 or the devastating floods of 2010, the Kingdom was always in the vanguard of nations offering humanitarian assistance. Fast forward to 2021, and the Royal Saudi Air Force is actively participating in the international military exercise currently being hosted by the Pakistan Air Force.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Prime Minister Imran Khan, on a recent phone call, have had detailed discussions about matters of mutual interest. They also discussed a new topic of environmental protection through large scale tree plantation and shifting to cleaner energy resources. Pakistan aims at producing 60 percent of its energy by 2030 through hydro or solar resources. Since both countries have long coastal lines, protection of the marine environment and sustainability of underwater ecosystems are being accorded due importance.
Saudi vision 2030 is essentially about diversification of the economy and its modernization. Dependence on oil will be gradually reduced and new avenues of income generation developed. Tourism will be one such sectors. The Kingdom has the holiest Islamic shrines and other historical places. Millions of Pakistanis would like to go every year to visit these places. Conversely, Pakistan too offers suitable sites for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religious tourism. Similarly, it could evolve into a favorite destination for Arab family tourism. Its northern areas have fascinating scenery and mild climate in summers. If the two countries develop suitable tourism promotion strategies in unison, it would be a win-win situation for both.
The two leaders spoke about extensive tree plantation projects to counter climate change brought about by excessive use of fossil fuels. Pakistan’s government has already started plantation of ten billion saplings. The Kingdom will plant a similar number of trees within its borders and offer four times more to the Middle East nations under its “Green Middle East initiative, aimed at protecting the nature and planet.” This is an ambitious and a noble project. Through its vast experience in arid agriculture and propagation of new plant saplings suitable for our environment, Pakistan could share its expertise with relevant circles in Saudi Arabia. They already have added greenery to the pilgrimage sites like Mina and Muzdalfa around Makkah Al Mukkarma.
In addition to environmental protection, tourism and recreational activities, the two countries could fruitfully cooperate in the field of education. A number of Pakistani professors and students have been to the University of Petroleum and Minerals at Dhahran. Pakistan has an international level medical school in Karachi, a leading business school in Lahore and a couple of reputed IT and engineering institutions. Exchanges of students and teachers would be greatly beneficial for both.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has accepted invitation from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to visit the Kingdom. The visit will afford a good opportunity to discuss new avenues of bilateral cooperation.
• Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.