Pak PM Shehbaz Sharif kicks-off maiden Saudi Arabia visit
Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday left for Saudi Arabia on his maiden three-day official visit abroad during which he will hold wide-ranging discussions with the top Saudi leadership, with particular focus on advancing economic, trade and investment ties.
The 70-year-old leader was sworn in as Pakistan's 23rd prime minister on April 11 after his predecessor Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote.
Sharif, who has been invited for the trip by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is accompanied by a high-level delegation including key ministers.
"Today I am embarking on a visit to Saudi Arabia to renew & reaffirm our bonds of brotherhood & friendship. I will have wide-ranging discussions with Saudi leadership. KSA is one of our greatest friends & as Custodian of the Two Holy Places, has a special place in all our hearts,” Sharif tweeted.
In a separate video message issued shortly before departure, Sharif expressed his delight for going on the first visit to the Gulf Kingdom for which he thanked the crown prince.
"This reflects the high importance that Pakistan attaches to its special relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is historic in nature and strategic in significance," he said.
"Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are bound by deep-rooted and abiding fraternal ties which are built on a solid foundation of mutual trust and support," he said.
"We are profoundly grateful to Saudi Arabia for its consistent support to Pakistan in its difficult hours. For its part, Pakistan has always stood by Saudi Arabia and will always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Saudi brethren," he said.
"I look forward to my interaction with the Saudi leadership to review our multi-faceted bilateral cooperation and to take this special relationship to unknown heights," the prime minister said.
He expressed good wishes for expatriates in the kingdom, saying they contributed enormously to the country's economic development. "They are a key partner in further fortifying Pakistan-Saudi brotherly relations," he concluded.
The Gulf Kingdom is also home to more than two million Pakistanis.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, Narcotics Control Minister Shahzain Bugti, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif and Federal minister Chaudhry Salik Hussain and lawmakers MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui are part of the PM’s delegation.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Office said that Prime Minister Sharif will have bilateral interaction with the Saudi leadership during the visit, with particular focus on advancing economic, trade and investment ties and creation of greater opportunities for the Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia.
"This would be the Prime Minister’s first visit abroad after assuming Office earlier this month. The Prime Minister will be accompanied by a high-level delegation, including key members of the Cabinet,” it said.
The two sides will also exchange views on a range of regional and international issues of mutual interest.
The bilateral relationship is complemented by close mutual collaboration at regional and international fora. Saudi Arabia is a member of the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation contact group on Kashmir.
In December 2021, Pakistan had taken a USD 3 billion loan from Saudi Arabia on very tough conditions after its official gross foreign exchange reserves dipped below USD 16 billion. Saudi had also approved oil on deferred payment equal to USD 1.2 billion annually.
Citing sources, The News reported that Pakistan has decided to seek an additional package of USD 3.2 billion from Saudi Arabia to jack up the total facility to USD 7.4 billion from the existing USD 4.2 billion during the current visit of Prime Minister Sharif, in order to avert further depletion of foreign currency reserves.
"We are going to request the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to increase the amount of the deposit from USD 3 billion to USD 5 billion and double the Saudi Oil Facility (SOF) from USD 1.2 billion to USD 2.4 billion, so the total package could be increased up to USD 7.4 billion during the visit of premier Sharif," a source said.
"We are requesting for deferred payment facility and enhancing the credit extended for forex support," the paper quoted one of the top officials of the Finance Division as saying.
Cash-strapped Pakistan is passing through a phase of political and economic uncertainty, and the newly-formed Sharif government is struggling to deal with spiralling inflation and an economy that simply refuses to rebound.
Earlier this week, Pakistan and the IMF agreed to extend the stalled bailout package by up to one year and increase the loan size from the existing USD 6 billion to USD 8 billion, giving a breathing space to the Sharif government.
In his first address to the parliament soon after election as the prime minister of the country, Sharif had highlighted special ties with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman earlier sent congratulatory messages to Shehbaz on becoming Pakistan’s new prime minister and wished him success.
On the sidelines of the visit, Sharif would also visit Mecca to perform Umrah pilgrimage.
Following General Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999 toppling the Nawaz Sharif government, Sharif along with the family spent eight years in exile in Saudi Arabia before returning to Pakistan in 2007.