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Pakistan's Imran Khan visits Saudi Arabia in bid to repair relations

Khan to discuss bilateral relations including trade, investment, energy, with several agreements expected to be signed
Saudi Arabia was the first foreign country Khan visited after his election in 2018.
Saudi Arabia was the first foreign country Khan visited after his election in 2018 (AFP)

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan begins a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday, in an effort to rebalance ties after recent tensions set back Islamabad's relationship with its traditionally close ally.

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Khan, invited by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will discuss relations between the two countries including in trade, investment, and energy, and a number of bilateral agreements are expected to be signed, according to a statement from Pakistan's foreign ministry.

"I look forward to my visit to Saudi Arabia and hope my interaction with the Saudi leadership will further strengthen our bilateral relations and will open further avenues for building a strong economic partnership," Khan wrote in the Saudi daily, Arab News.

The prime minister is being accompanied by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and several members of his cabinet.

His visit is also expected to focus on the needs of the 2.5 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan's foreign ministry said Khan would be interacting with the Pakistani diaspora in Jeddah.

Earlier on Friday, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa arrived in Saudi Arabia and spoke to the Saudi crown prince, discussing "recent developments in [the] Afghan Peace Process, bilateral defence, security, collaboration for regional peace," Pakistan's military said in a statement.

Pakistan-Saudi tensions

Saudi Arabia was the first foreign country Khan visited after his election in 2018, and he has visited the kingdom multiple times since. Yet this trip is the first time Khan has visited the country since December 2019.

After decades of close political, economic, and military cooperation, Islamabad and Riyadh's relationship has been rocked by a number of issues.

In August, Pakistan accused the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 57 Muslim-majority countries led by Saudi Arabia, of inaction over India's decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status.

Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister, lashed out at Riyadh in a rare rebuke and threatened to convene a meeting of Muslim countries outside the Saudi-led OIC.

The kingdom responded by pushing Pakistan to repay a $3bn interest-free loan it had extended to the country in 2018, at a time when the South Asian nation was suffering dire economic conditions.

Pakistan returned $1bn of the loan in December and turned to China for financial assistance.

In 2019, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan cancelled a planned visit to Malaysia, where Middle East leaders including Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attended a summit of Muslim-majority nations.

Before that, Pakistan in 2015 refused to send its troops to fight in the Saudi-led coalition's war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.