Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s new army chief has held talks with top Saudi officials, including the defence minister, on his first official trip to the Gulf kingdom as the South Asian country faces an unprecedented economic crisis.
General Syed Asim Munir, who took charge in November, has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in visiting Saudi Arabia – a close defence and economic ally – on his maiden overseas trip. He will also visit the United Arab Emirates during the nearly one-week trip.
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“The COAS will be meeting the senior leadership of both brotherly countries to discuss matters of mutual interest, military-to-military cooperation and bilateral relations focusing on security-related subjects,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, said in a statement on Wednesday.
General Munir discussed military cooperation with Saudi defence minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in the capital Riyadh on Thursday, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
“We emphasised the strategic partnership between our brotherly countries, reviewed the bilateral military and defense relations, and discussed ways of strengthening our cooperation,” Prince Khalid bin Salman tweeted.
‘Vulnerable financial situation’
The current visit by General Munir came at a time when Pakistan faced a crippling economic crisis as the country’s foreign reserves have depleted to less than $6bn – its lowest since April 2014 – which can just cover a month of import. Inflation has been skyrocketing while the country is also dealing with the aftermath of last year’s catastrophic floods that resulted in an estimated loss of more than $30bn.
Earlier this week, Pakistani finance minister Ishaq Dar in a news conference expressed hope that Saudi Arabia will park its deposits in the central bank to provide some relief to the economy.
Islamabad needed Saudi money to shore foreign reserves and ensure a safety valve from default. Riyadh deposited $3bn in November 2021, under the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Last month, the kingdom extended the terms of the fund.
Since taking office last April, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has travelled to several Gulf countries to seek economic aid and investment. According to official data between April to November last year, Saudi Arabia has given more than $900m in aid and $500m for importing oil. Qatar promised to invest $3bn during Sharif’s trip to Doha in August.
Islamabad-based analyst Mohammed Faisal believed that General Munir’s visit must be seen from the lens of the economy as it comes at a time of “particularly vulnerable financial situation”.
“Pakistani leadership is looking towards Saudi royals to shore up the depleting foreign reserves to avert default. For Islamabad, a key outcome of the trip would be a Saudi announcement of financial assistance,” he told Al Jazeera.
Pakistan managed to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) worth $1.17bn in August. But the next tranche of the $1.18bn loan has been delayed. Islamabad is still negotiating with IMF for the next tranche.
In September, the Pakistan finance minister resigned while the government seems unwilling to accept IMF conditions, including increasing levies on fuel.
Pakistan has been teetering on the brink of default, which, in simple terms, means the country cannot pay back what it is owed and the treasury does not have sufficient money to meet its debt obligations. Experts have feared Pakistan is headed to a Sri Lanka-like default situation and that it can be only prevented by deft handling of the economy.
From the Saudi perspective, Faisal said, the Gulf nation wanted to maintain the relationship with Pakistan because the country was an important element of Saudi regional strategy.
“Saudi Arabia is aware that Pakistan, a large Muslim-majority country endorses Saudi claim to be the guardian of two of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina,” Faisal told Al Jazeera.
With the relationship between the two nations going back more than 50 years, this is not the first time a Pakistani leader, either civilian or military, has picked the kingdom as their first destination after taking charge.
Both the current Prime Minister Sharif and his predecessor Khan travelled to Saudi Arabia on their maiden visits in 2018 and 2022 respectively.
The last two former army chiefs, General Qamar Javed Bajwa – Munir’s predecessor, and General Raheel Sharif, went to Saudi Arabia for their first trip.
Sharif, after his retirement in November 2016, subsequently became the commander-in-chief of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, a 41-nation alliance of Muslim countries located in Riyadh.
Pakistan’s former envoy to Saudi Arabia Shahid M Amin said that the relationship between the two nations is historic in nature and, while Pakistan often needs economic support, it also has provided security assistance to Saudi Arabia.
“The two countries have engaged in various sectors such as economy, labour, trade, security and the fact that the current army chief went to Saudi Arabia, it is merely a continuation of a pattern.”
Amin told Al Jazeera that Pakistani manpower was the key driver for Saudi development for more than five decades. Pakistan, too, Amin said, has made commitments to protect the kingdom in case of any security concerns.
A retired senior military officer, Omar Mahmood Hayat, concurred with Amin’s views and said that the relationship is time-tested.
“One of our oldest and biggest bilateral military exercises has been with Saudi Arabia. We have a very strong training team deployed in Saudi for decades,” he said.
General Munir himself has served time in Saudi Arabia as part of the Pakistani army’s close defence cooperation with the kingdom.
Hayat further added that with Kingdom itself a very strong member of various international forums, it helps echo Pakistan’s point of view, as well.
“It makes a lot of sense that this should be the first visit as has always been,” he said.