Thursday, December 2, 2021

Bajwa’s Saudi Visit:  An Attempt To Mend The Fences

The revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution last year, has upset the domestic and foreign policies of Pakistan. Since Kashmir had been the focal point of its foreign policy, the Pakistan Tehreek-Insaaf government has made all attempts to internationalize it. Islamabad especially had high hopes from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to convene a high-level meeting on the Kashmir issue. Since Saudi Arabia is considered the centre of the Islamic countries and one of the main influencers of the OIC, Pakistan had always tried to have the Kingdom on its side.

But all its hopes were dashed, when in a talk show Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi underlined that OIC and Saudi had belied its hopes on the Kashmir issue and stressed that Pakistan is losing its patience on the matter. He further said that Pakistan would be forced to form an alliance with like-minded Islamic countries, minus Saudi Arabia and call a conference outside OIC, if Kashmir is not prioritized by the OIC. This upset the Saudi rulers and Imran Khan had sent both the political and military leadership in Pakistan on a damage control mode.

 The impromptu trip of Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and DG Inter-Services-Intelligence Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed to the Kingdom this week is viewed as an extension of the damage control policy to review the strained relationship. According to Pakistan, the visit was primarily “military-affairs oriented”.  Gen Bajwa held talks with Saudi Deputy Minister for Defence Khalid bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz on bilateral defence cooperation and regional security.  Gen. Bajwa also met General Fayiadh bin Ha’med Al-Rowaily, Chief of Saudi General Staff and Lieutenant General Fahad bin Turki Al Saud, Commander Joint Forces, KSA. Military to military ties including training exchanges were the focus of the meetings according to reports. 

However, according to Saudi officials, the visit underlined “common concerns”, in addition to bilateral cooperation. The common concern here is Pakistan’s attempts to mend fences. Bajwa tried to use his good offices to calm the situation raised due to Qureshi’s criticism of Saudi over the Kashmir issue. Even the Pakistan Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid told the media that Bajwa’s Saudi visit was meant to iron out ‘outstanding minor differences’. It has to be noted that before this visit Bajwa also met the Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan, Admiral Nawaf Saeed Al Malkiy in a bid to put off the fire set on by Qureshi’s statement. This meeting paved the way for Bajwa’s Saudi visit.

But it appears that Saudi is in no hurry to mend the fences as Gen. Bajwa could not secure an audience with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). This has sent a strong signal that the Saudi rulers are still angry with Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s statement. According to analysts, the Saudis have privately asked that the Pakistan Foreign Minister must step down. After failed attempts to meet the Crown Prince, the Pak military commanders left for Jeddah to perform Umrah after which they will head back to Pakistan.

 Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has downplayed the differences between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and stressed in a TV interview that the rumours about Pakistan’s relation with Saudi Arabia souring are totally false. However, Bajwa’s trip came at an important juncture with UAE signing the peace deal with Israel, this has caused further consternation within the Ummah, with Turkey, Iran and Malaysia threatening to form a new bloc.  

The Saudis also have not taken too kindly to Pakistan’s move of cozying up to Turkey and Iran. Iran is the Kingdom’s arch-rival in the region and Turkey has of late tried to project of itself as a new leader of the OIC. Saudi Arabia’s position in the Islamic World is well known. The recent bickering between Islamabad and Riyadh point to the fact that all is not well between the two nations. Thus, Bajwa’s visit was an attempt to salvage the deteriorating relationship. 

Script: Dr. Zainab Akhter, Analyst on Pakistan

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