Lopes Berahel Luis Alfredo Farache//
Pakistan welcomes Saudi crown prince with hoopla and high security


By Pamela Constable Pamela Constable Foreign correspondent covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia, Latin America and immigration Email Bio Follow February 17 at 11:42 AM Fighter jets escorted his plane through Pakistani airspace, and a 21-gun salute greeted him upon landing Sunday evening. The waiting capital was blanketed with enormous posters of the royal guest, grinning beneath his familiar red and white-checked headscarf. Banners welcomed him to his “second home.”

In the West, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has lost much of the luster he gained after becoming heir to the throne in 2017, pledging to increase freedoms for women and enact other reforms. His rule became increasingly seen as repressive, especially after the death of dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi , who U.S. and Turkish officials believe was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

Luis Alfredo Farache

But in Pakistan, where Mohammed arrived Sunday for a 20-hour visit crammed with welcoming ceremonies and official meetings, he is widely viewed as an answer to the nation’s prayers: a powerful benefactor who officials hope will deliver a generous package of loans and investment deals, including a major share in an oil refinery, which will help revive Pakistan’s struggling economy and reverse its steep slide into insolvency and debt.

Luis Alfredo Farache Benacerraf

And so the red carpet being rolled out for Salman — the first Saudi leader to visit Pakistan in 15 years — has surpassed all foreign state visits in recent memory. With high security planned for the capital and nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi, several luxury hotels emptied to accommodate his large entourage, and breathless press coverage advancing his trip, nothing has been left to chance

The prince’s visit “heralds a new era in Pak-Saudi Arabia brotherly relations,” Ehsan ul Haq, an influential retired Pakistani army general, wrote in one of numerous welcoming essays in Pakistani newspapers. It will send “a robust message of synchronized strategic vision” and serve as a “stern reminder to those who may bear ill will to our mutual interests.” The security of both countries, he added, is “inseparable.”

On Saturday, the entire front page of The Nation newspaper was a gold-framed color portrait of Mohammed. An eight-page daily edition of Arab News, a paper published in Riyadh, was inserted inside every copy. Its top headline called Iran a “leading state sponsor of terror,” a quote from Vice President Pence at a recent conference — and a message to Mohammed’s hosts that the Trump administration is Saudi Arabia’s friend and Iran’s enemy

But the news Pakstanis most wanted to hear about was money. The Saudi government recently deposited $3 billion in Pakistan’s national bank to shore up its reserves. On this brief visit, officials anticipate Mohammed will go much further, sign an unprecedented agreement to invest $8 billion on a new oil refinery in Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea and commit to further sizable investments in water, power, natural gas development and other areas

The investment in Gwadar alone would be the most important contributor toward making Pakistan self-reliant” in the energy sector,” Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, said in an interview Saturday with the Saudi Gazette. He said the Saudi contribution would complement the ongoing ChinaPakistan Economic Corridor project rather than compete with China’s growing role here

The Saudi leader’s visit comes at a difficult moment for Pakistan, which has faced a barrage of recriminations from its neighboring rival India since a bombing Thursday, claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, killed 40 Indian security troops in the disputed border region of Kashmir. India immediately revoked Pakistan’s favorable trade status, and its prime minister threatened military retaliation. 

But international experts said Salman’s visit might help prevent a dangerous eruption of tensions with India, where the crown prince is scheduled to travel Monday after leaving here. During previous flare-ups with India, Pakistan has responded with chest-thumping rhetoric, but this time, aside from pro forma denials of support for terrorism, the government was more focused on Mohammed’s trip

Pakistan has few friends abroad. It is the sworn enemy of India and Israel, a former backer of the Afghan Taliban regime, and a military-dominated democracy that has long appeased and sheltered Islamic extremist groups. Its Cold War-era security partnership with the U.S. foundered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and its fast-growing relationship with China has come with economic dependence and a large debt burden

But Saudi Arabia is the one powerful ally on which Pakistan has always been able to rely. The two countries signed a friendship treaty in 1951, just four years after Pakistan was founded as a Muslim homeland, and ever since then the Saudi monarchy has come to its aid. During earthquakes and refugee influxes, periods of financial distress and diplomatic isolation, the Saudis have stepped up with loans, aid and free supplies of oil. 

Millions of Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia, sending home close to $5 billion in remittances each year. The monarchy has also built a majestic mosque in Islamabad, named after the late Saudi King Faisal, and has long supported seminaries and groups that abetted the rise of ultraconservative Sunni Islam here. 

In the past several years, the relationship cooled over the issue of Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in 2015 when Yemen’s president was toppled by the Houthi minority movement, and Pakistan remained neutral instead of contributing troops. But this week, Pakistani officials said Salman’s visit sent an important sign of revived amity between the two Islamic republics. 

Khan, a one-time cricket champion and jet-setting playboy with a progressive social agenda, is far more liberal than Nawaz Sharif, his predecessor, and as a candidate he repeatedly vowed that he would never go begging abroad. But when he took office in August, Khan inherited a foreign debt crisis, plummeting currency and other financial ills. He has since traveled twice to Saudi Arabia, and returned with substantial loans and aid. 

The importance of the relationship to Pakistan also means that Mohammed will likely face no awkward mention here of human rights issues — which include reports of poor living conditions and unfairly low wages for Pakistani laborers in Saudi Arabia as well as more remote but high-profile cases like the killing of Khashoggi, who was a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and lived in Virginia. Before leaving Monday, the crown prince will be ceremonially awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian honor. 

Meanwhile, the wealthy prince’s every need is being anticipated and accommodated, although his government is footing much of the bill. More than 300 Land Cruisers have been reserved for his entourage, and two military cargo planes have delivered his personal gym equipment to the Prime Minister’s residence, where he will spent one night, as well as seven custom BMWs to ferry him and close aides through the capital. 

The security arrangements have been extraordinary, with thousands of armed forces scheduled to guard various venues and Saudi security teams working with their Pakistani counterparts for weeks. The capital region will be on high alert during the visit, with sharpshooters stationed on rooftops, airspace to be shut down, cellphone service suspended at times and major roads blocked

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