On his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that his government was committed to advancing the special relationship with the Kingdom.
Sharif is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League. He was sworn in earlier this month after parliament ousted his predecessor, Imran Khan, in a vote of no confidence.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the Pakistani premier said: “It is our sincere desire now to transform this relationship into a deep, diversified and mutually beneficial strategic partnership. The two sides are now working to enhance economic, trade and investment cooperation by exploring the opportunities available under Saudi Vision 2030 and Pakistan’s development priorities.”
Shehbaz is the brother of Nawaz Sharif, who served as the country’s prime minister for three terms. When Nawaz tried to replace the army chief, the two brothers were overthrown in a military coup and were punished with imprisonment. They left for Saudi Arabia, where they spent eight years in the city of Jeddah until 2007.
On November 25, 2007, Shehbaz and his brother Nawaz returned to Pakistan after the Supreme Constitutional Court in Islamabad issued a decision allowing their return to the country.
Shehbaz Sharif, born in 1953 to a wealthy Kashmiri political family, previously held the position of prime minister of Punjab, the largest of Pakistan’s provinces.
In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the new premier talked about relations with Saudi Arabia, the situation in Yemen and Afghanistan, as well as the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and its local and regional repercussions.
Asked about his current visit to Riyadh and his assessment of Saudi-Pakistani bilateral relations, Sharif said: “Relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are historical and strategic.”
He pointed to full solidarity and understanding resulting from “our strong contacts at the leadership level and close cooperation on matters of regional and international importance.”
He continued: “This is my first foreign visit, and it demonstrates my deep commitment to further strengthening this fraternal relationship.”
As for the most important areas of mutual cooperation, the Pakistani premier stressed that brotherly ties with the Kingdom were not limited to specific fields but included all aspects of bilateral relations, including security and defense, bilateral trade and economic cooperation, in addition to parliamentary exchange.
Commenting on the Saudi initiative to resolve the Yemeni crisis, which was met with Houthis’ intransigence and their continued attacks on the Kingdom, Sharif said: “We strongly condemn the Houthi terrorist attacks targeting Saudi Arabia, and call for an immediate cessation of these hostilies, which violate and threaten the peace and security of the Kingdom and the region.”
He emphasized in this regard that his country fully supported the initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the efforts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the peaceful settlement of the Yemeni conflict.
He also lauded the establishment of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, as an “important step in the right direction that will help promote a comprehensive political solution to the Yemeni crisis.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran
Asked about his government’s opinion on the current Saudi-Iranian talks, the Pakistani premier said that his country enjoyed good brotherly relations with both Riyadh and Tehran.
“Iran is our important neighbor and Saudi Arabia is our closest friend. Thus, Pakistan welcomes the Saudi-Iranian talks, as Pakistan believes in the need to avoid conflict, defuse tensions and resolve differences through political and diplomatic means,” Sharif told Asharq Al-Awsat.
On the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and the increasing security danger by the extremist movement, the prime minister said that fighting terrorism was a common goal, not only for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for the entire international community.
“The international community should support Afghanistan to enhance its capacity to fight terrorism… But on the long term, the only guarantee of peace and security in our region is the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan,” he underlined.
Relations with the West
Asked about the means to improve relations with Europe and the United States, Sharif noted that Pakistan has traditionally enjoyed very good relations with Western countries, which he said were a major economic, trade and development partner.
“We are determined to further strengthen these relationships in the coming years,” he stated.
In this regard, the Pakistani premier said that Europe was one of his country’s largest trade and investment partners.
“This relationship is further enhanced by the presence of more than 3 million expatriates, which serves as a strong bridge. The two sides are firmly committed to advancing the goals of promotion of democracy, development, human rights and rule of law, and will continue to expand cooperation in regional security, trade and climate change for the mutual benefit of our two peoples,” he remarked.
On the US-Pakistani relations, Sharif noted that a long-term bilateral relationship between Islamabad and Washington was of a wide-ranging nature and covered issues of common interest.
“We believe that our continued constructive engagement can promote peace and security as well as development in the entire region. With a focus on economic development, Pakistan is well positioned to engage the United States and further enhance bilateral trade and investment,” he said.
The Ukrainian Crisis
The military conflict in Ukraine reflected the failure of diplomacy, the prime minister emphasized, stressing the need for an immediate halt of hostilities and for continued dialogue.
He said: “Pakistan enjoys good relations with both Russia and Ukraine. We have always taken a position based on the basic principles of the United Nations Charter. It is related to the peoples’ right to self-determination, the non-use or threat of force, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”
Sharif stressed the need to establish and maintain humanitarian corridors, provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and continue efforts for a diplomatic solution.
“Pakistan supports all efforts to provide humanitarian relief to civilians in the affected areas… and has sent two C-130 planes to provide relief aid to the people of Ukraine, as a gesture of solidarity,” he said.
The premier warned that conflict was in nobody’s interest, especially the developing world.
He explained that developing countries, such as Pakistan, were strongly hit by the crisis, especially with the soaring prices of oil and food on the international market.