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Saudi Crown Prince Signs $20B in Investment Deals in Pakistan

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Visiting Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center left, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, center right, witness the signing ceremony of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Petroleum, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is currently on a high profile visit to Pakistan, has ordered the release of more than 2,000 Pakistani prisoners from Saudi prisons.

Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudry posted the news on Twitter Monday: "As a sequel to Prime Minister of Pakistan request, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of KSA Mohammad Bin Salman has ordered the immediate release of 2107 Pakistani prisoners Saudi Jails. #CrownPrinceinPakisatan #KSAPakistanNewEra"

​Pakistan is expected to bestow its highest civilian honor on Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday, a day after he signed multi-billion-dollar deals with Pakistan.

On Sunday, the crown prince oversaw the signing of unprecedented investment deals with Pakistan worth $20 billion just a few hours after landing in Islamabad on his maiden state visit.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan along with senior civilian and military officials received the Saudi leader at the Air Force base outside the capital city. Khan later himself drove him to the palatial prime minister's complex where the two leaders held formal talks before overseeing the signing of agreements between their two delegations.

The two leaders later addressed the ceremony and their speeches were broadcast by state television. Crown Prince Salman, commonly known as MBS, noted his delegation signed "$20 billion" worth of memorandum of understandings (MoUs).

"It's big for phase one and definitely it's gonna grow every month, every year in bigger numbers and will be beneficial for both countries," he said.

Pakistani riders drive past portraits of Pakistani and Saudi leaders displayed in Islamabad, Pakistan, Feb. 15, 2019.
Pakistani riders drive past portraits of Pakistani and Saudi leaders displayed in Islamabad, Pakistan, Feb. 15, 2019.

MBS underscored the importance of the bilateral relationship, saying he chose Pakistan on his first ever trip to the East since becoming the crown prince

"Pakistan is gonna be a very, very important country in the future and we want to be sure that we are part of that," he emphasised.

"We believe in our region that's why we are investing in it and we believe that we are going to have one day a great Middle East surrounded by Pakistan from the east side," said MBS.

Khan welcomed Saudi investment in areas of oil refining, petrochemicals, energy and other sectors. "We have CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), we have links with China. So we welcome Saudi Arabia to participate with us. It's an exciting future," the Pakistani prime minister said.

CPEC is a package of infrastructure, energy and port-building projects Beijing is funding in Pakistan as part of its global Road and Belt Initiative. China has already invested $19 billion over the past five years and plans to invest billions more to construct industrial zones.

Pakistan maintains strong political, cultural, economic and defense ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom hosts more than 2.5 million Pakistani expatriates, and is a key source of oil supplies for Islamabad - on deferred payments, as well cash grants to help Pakistan's often ailing economy.

The agreements signed Sunday, included an estimated $10 billion oil refinery in Gwadar where China has built and activated a major seaport under CPEC. Pakistani officials say the facility will be in place in next "3-5 years" in Gwadar and will meet the country's needs of refined oil products currently being imported. The surplus will be exported to regional countries through the Arabian Sea port in Gwadar which China has built and activated under CPEC.

The unprecedented Saudi investment is being viewed by Prime Minister Khan's nascent government as a major boost for Pakistan, which is facing an economic crisis and balance of payments pressure.

High Regional Tensions

The rare high-profile visit by the Saudi crown prince, however, comes amid Pakistan's dangerously escalating tensions with archival India over last week's deadly suicide car bombing in the disputed Kashmir region.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of playing a role in the attack that killed more than 40 Indian security forces. Pakistani officials deny the charges as baseless.

But last week's deadly bombings in Kashmir and in a border region of neighboring Iran have raised regional tensions. Tehran has also accused Pakistan-based anti-Iran militants for orchestrating the attack that killed 27 personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The Indian government has vowed to punish and internationally isolate Islamabad, while Iranian leaders are demanding Pakistan bring to justice perpetrators of the bombing in Sistan-Baluchistan border province.

Pakistani leaders have rejected Indian allegations as unfounded and pledged cooperation to investigate them provided New Delhi shared "evidence" with Islamabad.

"It is preposterous to think that Pakistan can be "isolated"," Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua said in a special briefing to foreign diplomats on the rising bilateral tensions.

Pakistan maintains close counterterrorism cooperation with Iran and officials say bilateral ties have significantly improved in recent years. Officials reject suggestions Islamabad's deepening ties with Riyadh are undermining relations with Tehran.

Former Pakistani diplomat, Asif Durrani, insisted the militant attacks in Iran and Indian Kashmir could be an attempt to overshadow the royal visit and put Pakistan under pressure.

"Iranian and Indian accusations against Pakistan over these incidents, even if for varied reasons, smack off ulterior motives to malign Pakistan despite the fact that these incidents wouldn't benefit Pakistan in any way," noted Durrani who was Islamabad's ambassador to Tehran until a few months ago.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan personally received Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and drove him to his office after the Saudi leader landed in Islamabad on his first state visit, Feb. 17, 2019 (courtesy Khan's office)
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan personally received Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and drove him to his office after the Saudi leader landed in Islamabad on his first state visit, Feb. 17, 2019 (courtesy Khan's office)

Durrani noted that the Saudi prince's visit has assumed extra importance due to the prevailing situation in the region, especially in the backdrop of Riyadh-Tehran Iran rift.

Pakistan has always walked a tightrope while trying to maintain a balance between Iran, and Saudi Arabia

Sunni-dominated Pakistan has deep ties to Saudi Arabia in all fields, but it shares a porous border with Shi'ite Iran, stretching over 900 kilometers. A fifth of Pakistan's more than 200 million residents are Shiite Muslims who maintain close cultural and religious ties with the Iranian nation.

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