Pakistan's new ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Farooq, said he was looking forward to building on the long-standing ties between his country and the kingdom, starting with economic collaboration.
"The relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is a very close one. It is marked by trust, by friendship," Mr Farooq told The National during a visit to Jeddah, after attending the annual washing of the Kaaba in Makkah.
"It was amazing," he said of the ceremony. "Nothing like one can imagine."
Of the "very special" relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Mr Farooq said there was "co-operation and connection between the leadership and the people".
"This is one of the most important diplomatic assignments for Pakistan," he said of his new posting.
More than 2.7 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia, Mr Farooq said, and his compatriots had made a "huge contribution" to the development of the kingdom.
"We in Pakistan, everybody calls Saudi Arabia their second home," he said. "For me right now, I would say the number one priority that we need to strengthen is the economic relationship."
This month, the embassy in Riyadh announced that Pakistan's exports to Saudi Arabia increased by 31 per cent to a record $563.47 million in the past fiscal year.
On Tuesday, a Saudi delegation arrived in Pakistan to discuss investment opportunities in the mining sector, aiming to explore Pakistan’s estimated $6 trillion estimated worth of mineral deposits.
Saudi Arabia is the world's fourth-largest importer of minerals.
Mr Farooq said the proposed oil refinery at Gwadar port was the most important Saudi investment in the country.
"It's a large investment. The project is worth anywhere from $10 billion to 14 billion," he said. "Hopefully in a matter of a few months, we should have the final commercial contract and then we'll move towards the construction.
"There are prospects of Saudi investment in Pakistan in several sectors. Mining is one, the oil refinery project is another.
"Agriculture is another area where we are very interested, and I think the Saudi side also is interested because through that investment it helps in improving food security in Saudi Arabia.
"So those are all areas that we need to focus on, and my goal is that we make progress on that."
During a visit in 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to inject $20 billion into the Pakistani economy.
This month, Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion in Pakistan’s central bank, a day before the International Monetary Fund's board gave final approval to $3 billion in funds to help bail out the country on a stand-by arrangement.
Mr Farooq remains hopeful about the Pakistani economy, adding that the country is acting on structural reform.
"The IMF programme also has to be backed by efforts to address the root causes which create the conditions that you have to go to the IMF," he said.
Boost from Saudi-China ties
Mr Farooq said the growing ties between Saudi Arabia and China presented many opportunities to Pakistan as their common partner.
Pakistan recently marked the 10th anniversary of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor project "that basically helps to connect China through our ports to the GCC countries", he said.
One of the area of focus at the recent GCC and Central Asian Countries Summit in Jeddah was improving trade between the two regions and "Pakistan provides the best corridor for that trade to happen", Mr Farooq said.
"So with China there, Saudi Arabia and other GCC members there, there are a lot of possibilities that we can pursue in the future."
The GCC remains a "very, very important" partner as the largest Pakistani expatriate community lived in Gulf countries.
Pakistan and the GCC are close to finalising a free-trade agreement.
"Once that happens that opens a lot of doors for businesses, for trade in goods, services and also investment opportunities," he said.
"We see a very bright future with the GCC."
Defence and regional peace
Mr Farooq said Pakistan's military had contributed greatly to strengthening Saudi Arabia's defence and the relationship was continuing.
"It has been a long tradition. Since 1982, our military trainers have been assisting the Saudi military – all forces, army, air force, navy – in their training requirements," he said.
"We continue with that. There's there is still a strong contingent of military trainers from Pakistan which are permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia.
"In the future we are also looking at opportunities on how we can collaborate in terms of meeting the equipment requirement. Some joint production in defence equipment and those things also are being considered."
Mr Farooq said he appreciated the vision of Saudi Arabia's leadership in the strengthening of relations among Arab states, including the recent return of Syria into the Arab League.
"You know, the steps that they have taken in recent times, especially on the foreign relations side," he said.
"They are revolutionary and this is actually what was needed to bring peace to this region and to create an environment where there can be prosperity.
"If you see Pakistan's experience, we have been suffering from the Afghan conflict for the last 40 years and that has affected our economy, affected our development."
Mr Farooq said the return to power of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan in 2021 had presented Pakistan with a "very complex situation".
On Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called on the Taliban to stop militants from crossing into Pakistan after a suicide bombing that killed dozens in the north-west border region on Sunday.
Mr Farooq said that under a peace agreement drawn up in Taliban talks with the US before they seized power, one of the key points was that they would not allow their soil to be used by terrorist groups to attack any other country.
"Unfortunately, we feel that they have not kept their side of the bargain, especially when it comes to Pakistan," he said.
"There are groups that use Afghanistan's territory to carry out attacks in Pakistan," he said, referring to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has theological ties to the Afghan Taliban but is a separate group.
Pakistan, which hosted 3.2 million Afghan refugees, had also addressed the restrictions the Taliban imposed on Afghan women after seizing power, saying it was in their own interest to help their women, he said.
"It is a very complex situation for us. We also tell the international community, while we have these concerns, we need to stay engaged with Taliban for them to have a change of behaviour on all accounts, from security to social issues."
Cultural co-operation and Vision 2030
Mr Farooq said he was pleasantly surprised to experience the changes in the kingdom under its Vision 2030 programme.
"I have been here now for almost two months and I have already participated in some events which have been organised under the Vision 2030, for example by the Saudi Ministry of Culture, and it was quite refreshing," he said.
"We got to experience Saudi cuisine, Saudi culture, handicrafts. It's important that the people of Pakistan are also given exposure to that.
"People look at Saudi Arabia more in the context of the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah.
"But now the Saudi government is promoting tourism and if you are coming for Umrah you can also use that same visa for visiting other parts of the country."
Mr Farooq said Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had already discussed implementing initiatives to create a stronger "people to people connection".
They include co-operation between the the media, co-ordination between their press agencies, and organising events in both countries so that their citizens are able to better understand the culture of the other country.