Pakistan's Sharif arrives in Saudi Arabia on first foreign trip as prime minister

Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the family has close ties to the Saudi royal family

Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was received by Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Governor of Madinah province. Photo: SPA
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Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to seek financial support from a country where he spent years in exile.

The kingdom has long been an intelligence partner for Pakistan as well as a regular source of relief for its ailing economy.

“Today I am embarking on a visit to Saudi Arabia to renew and reaffirm our bonds of brotherhood and friendship,” Mr Sharif said on Twitter on Thursday before he departed Pakistan.

He added that the country “has a special place in all our hearts".

Mr Sharif, who was sworn in earlier this month after Parliament ousted his predecessor Imran Khan in a no-confidence vote, arrived in Madinah on Thursday evening, where he was received by Prince Faisal bin Salman, Governor of Madinah province.

He inherited crippling national debt, galloping inflation and a feeble rupee, but has vowed to use “Pakistan speed” to hurry along development projects and jump-start economic recovery.

His delegation was expected to include Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 33-year-old scion of Pakistan's most influential political dynasty who was appointed foreign minister on Wednesday.

Talks are expected to focus “on advancing economic, trade and investment ties and creation of greater opportunities for the Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia”, a statement from Pakistan's foreign ministry said.

Saudi Arabia hosts more than two million Pakistanis, the statement added.

Close ties to Saudi Arabia's royal family

Mr Sharif is the younger brother of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the family has close ties to the Saudi royal family.

Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif, along with other relatives, went into exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000 after a coup ousted Nawaz the previous year.

They did not return to Pakistan until 2007.

Shehbaz Sharif was elected as the 23rd prime minister of Pakistan after Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote on April 10. EPA

“The Sharif family have traditionally had very good relations with the kingdom and this visit serves [Shehbaz Sharif's] interest” in showing that to his domestic audience, said Saudi political analyst Ali Shihabi.

Yet those connections may have less value as power in Saudi Arabia consolidates under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, said Arif Rafiq, an expert on Pakistan and president of the Vizier Consulting risk advisory firm.

“I think a basic aim of this visit by Sharif would be to reset relations with [Prince Mohammed] and establish the terms of what is probably going to be a much more transactional partnership,” Mr Rafiq said.

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter, already supports Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves and has established a mechanism for selling oil to Pakistan on deferred payment, he said.

“The Pakistanis might ask Riyadh for additional deposits in its central bank because its external account is under severe stress,” he added.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said the visit was due to last until Saturday.

Updated: April 28, 2022, 5:13 PM