Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s new army chief held talks with senior Saudi officials, including the defense minister, on his first official trip to the Gulf kingdom as the South Asian country grapples with an unprecedented economic crisis.
Gen. Syed Asim Munir, who took charge in November, followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in visiting Saudi Arabia — a close defense and economic ally — on his first foreign trip. He will also visit the United Arab Emirates during the trip, which will take about a week.
“COAS will meet with the senior leadership of both brotherly countries to discuss matters of mutual interest, military cooperation, and bilateral relations with a focus on security-related topics,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military media wing, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Lieutenant General Munir discussed military cooperation with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in the capital, Riyadh, on Thursday, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
“We confirmed the strategic partnership between the two brotherly countries, reviewed bilateral military and defense relations, and discussed ways to enhance our cooperation,” Prince Khalid bin Salman wrote on Twitter.
‘fragile financial situation’
General Monir’s current visit came at a time when Pakistan faced a crippling economic crisis as the country’s foreign reserves dried up to less than $6 billion – the lowest level since April 2014 – which can only cover a month of imports. Inflation has skyrocketed while the country is also dealing with the fallout from last year’s catastrophic floods, which led to an estimated loss of more than $30 billion.
Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Finance Minister Ishaq Dar expressed hope in a press conference that Saudi Arabia would deposit its deposits in the central bank to provide some relief to the economy.
Islamabad needed Saudi money to shore up foreign reserves and ensure a safety valve against default. Riyadh deposited $3 billion in November 2021, during the reign of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Last month, the kingdom extended the terms of the fund.
Since taking office last April, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has traveled to several Gulf countries in search of economic aid and investment. According to official data, between April and November last year, Saudi Arabia provided more than $900 million in aid and $500 million for oil imports. Qatar promised to invest $3 billion during Sharif’s trip to Doha in August.
Islamabad-based analyst Muhammad Faisal believes that General Munir’s visit should be viewed in terms of the economy as it comes at a time of “a particularly weak financial situation”.
The Pakistani leadership is looking to the Saudi royals to shore up depleted foreign reserves to avoid default. For Islamabad, the main outcome of the trip will be Saudi Arabia’s announcement of financial aid.
Pakistan managed to secure a $1.17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in August. But the next tranche of the $1.18 billion loan has been delayed. Islamabad is still negotiating with the IMF for the next tranche.
In September, Pakistan’s finance minister resigned while the government appeared unwilling to accept IMF terms, including an increase in duties on fuel.
Pakistan was teetering on the brink of default, which, in simple terms, means that the country cannot pay what it owes and the treasury does not have sufficient funds to meet its debt obligations. Experts fear that Pakistan is heading towards a default situation similar to Sri Lanka and that this can only be prevented through shrewd handling of the economy.
From the Saudi perspective, Faisal said, the Gulf country wanted to maintain the relationship with Pakistan because the country was an important component of Saudi Arabia’s regional strategy.
“Saudi Arabia is aware that Pakistan, a large Muslim-majority country, endorses Saudi Arabia’s claim to be the custodian of two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina,” Faisal told Al Jazeera.
With the relationship between the two countries dating back more than 50 years, this was not the first time that a Pakistani leader, whether civilian or military, had chosen the kingdom as a first destination after taking over.
Both the current Prime Minister Sharif and his predecessor Khan traveled to Saudi Arabia for their first visits in 2018 and 2022, respectively.
The last two former army chiefs, General Qamar Javed Bajwa – Munir’s predecessor, and Major General Raheel Sharif, have gone to Saudi Arabia for their first trip.
After his retirement in November 2016, Sharif later became the commander-in-chief of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition, a coalition of 41 Islamic countries based in Riyadh.
The former Pakistani envoy to Saudi Arabia, Shahid Amin, said the relationship between the two countries is historical in nature, and while Pakistan often needs economic support, it has also provided security assistance to Saudi Arabia.
“The two countries got involved in different sectors like economy, labour, trade, security and the fact that the current army chief went to Saudi Arabia, it’s just a continuation of the pattern.”
Amin told Al Jazeera that Pakistani manpower has been the main engine of Saudi development for more than five decades. Amin said that Pakistan also made commitments to protect the kingdom in case of any security concerns.
Omar Mahmoud Hayat, a retired senior military officer, agreed with Amin’s views and said the relationship had stood the test of time.
“One of our oldest and largest bilateral military exercises was with Saudi Arabia. “We have a very strong coaching team that has been around in Saudi Arabia for decades,” he said.
General Munir himself spent a period in Saudi Arabia as part of the Pakistan Army’s close defense cooperation with the kingdom.
With the kingdom itself being a very strong member in various international forums, Hayat added, it helps to echo Pakistan’s point of view as well.
“It makes sense that this is the first visit as it always has,” he said.