PTI’s long march puts MBS visit in doubt

As former prime minister Imran Khan finally announced the date for the much-anticipated long march towards Islamabad on Tuesday, the likely visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan in November may be put on hold, official sources familiar with the development said.

Imran is set to launch the anti-government long march on Friday from Lahore, where his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is currently in the government.

Imran said there was no timeframe for the long march when it would reach Islamabad but added he would take the famous Grand Trunk Road (GT) to enter the capital city.

His long march, however, may coincide with the likely visit of the Saudi crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif when he visited Saudi Arabia in July.

The visit is seen as crucial because the government is expecting some financial bailout package as well as revival of certain projects that were shelved during the PTI government.

The sources said that both sides were in touch to finalise the date of the visit but Saudi authorities were closely following the political developments in Pakistan, particularly the imminent long march of Imran Khan.

If Imran goes ahead with the long march and stages a sit-in as he did in 2014, the two sides may reschedule the visit. Observers believe that in such political uncertainty, no foreign dignitary would like to visit Islamabad.

In fact in 2014 Chinese President Xi Xinping had to call off his scheduled visit to Pakistan because of the political unrest in the country. The Chinese ambassador had even approached Imran at that time to suspend his protest for a few days in order to allow the visit to take place.

However, the PTI chief refused.

The visit of Crown Prince Mohammed is being planned at a time when the coalition government is facing daunting economic challenges while Saudi Arabia is involved in a diplomatic row with the US over the recent cut in oil supplies by major exporting countries.

Pakistan in a significant move took a public stance on the US-Saudi row and backed Riyadh’s position. The statement in favour of Saudi Arabia at this juncture may help Pakistan get much-needed financial support from Riyadh.

The US has been furious over the OPEC+ move to cut oil supplies by 2 million barrels a day despite request by President Joe Biden to the contrary.

Biden warned that Saudi Arabia will have to face the consequences of the decision and that his administration would revisit the 80-year long bilateral relationship with the Arab country.

Against this backdrop, the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince would be closely watched. Sources said the government was keen to revive the multibillion-dollar investment plan that Saudi Arabia had agreed to do in Pakistan when the crown prince visited Islamabad in February 2019.

As part of the plan, Saudi Arabia was to set up an oil refinery in Gwadar with an investment of $10 billion. However, the project could not take off for a variety of reasons, including former prime minister Imran Khan’s certain policy moves.

But now Saudi Arabia is willing to revive the project. Pakistan is meanwhile pushing for Pakistan, Saudi and China tripartite agreement for the oil refinery. It is said that China would provide the necessary financing while Chinese companies would undertake the project.

Also given Pakistan’s precarious economic situation with dwindling foreign reserves, Islamabad is hoping for financial assistance from Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has already rolled over $3 billion that Pakistan was supposed to repay in December.

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