ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia today (Tuesday) in his first foreign trip since he took charge last month.
The composition of his entourage that includes Finance Minister Asad Umar suggests that the prime minister is going to Riyadh for discussions on a possible economic bailout package.
Although bilateral relations and regional security situation would come under discussions, one of the major agenda items on the table is a Saudi bailout package for the new government.
An official statement issued by the Foreign Office on Monday said the prime minister will undertake a state visit to Saudi Arabia from September 18-19 on the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The prime minister will be accompanied by the foreign minister, minister for finance and adviser to the prime minister on commerce.
“The prime minister will call on His Majesty King Salman and hold a bilateral meeting with the crown prince. The king will also host a state banquet for the prime minister at the Royal Court. Accompanying ministers will also meet their counterparts to discuss bilateral cooperation,” the statement added.
The visit is seen as crucial against the backdrop of impending economic challenges facing the new government.
The PTI government is considering several options to shore up the fast depleting foreign exchange reserves. It is trying to avoid going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and instead reaching out to friendly countries — including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China — for financial assistance.
Speculation is rife in the media that Saudi Arabia may deposit certain amount in Pakistan’s exchequer so that the new government may have the necessary cushion given the current state of foreign exchange reserves.
In another other option Saudi Arabia may offer Pakistan oil on deferred payments as it did following the 1998 nuclear explosions when Islamabad was under crippling international economic sanctions.
What the new government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan would be offering to Saudi Arabia in return.
In the past, Riyadh had sought Islamabad’s active involvement in suppressing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pakistan, however, stayed away from the conflict. Interestingly, the PTI was one of the prominent parties that strongly opposed Pakistan becoming part of the Yemen conflict.
It also voiced concerns over Pakistan joining the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance against terrorism. But with pressing economic issues, Prime Minister Imran Khan may reconsider some of the positions he took before coming to power.
Observers caution the government to tread carefully as tilt towards Saudi Arabia can have negative implications on Pakistan’s ties with Iran.
They say the visit of Prime Minister Imran would certainly test his diplomatic skills.
Meanwhile, during the visit, Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Dr Yousef bin Ahmad alOthaimeen will call on the prime minister.
The prime minister will also perform Umra and visit Roza-e-Rasool (SAW) in Madina-al-Munawara.
Also the prime minister along with the delegation would travel to Abu Dhabi in the evening on September 19, and would be received by Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of UAE.
He is visiting the UAE on the invitation of the crown prince. The two leaders will discuss issues of bilateral interest.
(This news/article originally appeared in The Express Tribune on September 18th, 2018)