The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has a third partner now. When Prime Minister Imran Khan paid his maiden foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, people back home knew it was going to be a call to relieve Pakistan of the financial burden pushing the country once again to seek another bailout package. Averse to the International Monetary Fund’s prescriptions, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government has been exploring other options to get a breathing space. Saudi Arabia may have formally announced its intention to participate in CPEC now, but the decision had been taken much earlier. The official announcement and the investment details will be issued when Saudi Arabia’s ministerial-level delegation visits Islamabad early next month.

The China-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia troika blends naturally into a smooth partnership because of the traditional and friendly relationship among the three nations. Now CPEC will connect all the three countries through the Gwadar port in the Gulf.

If Saudi Arabia has helped Pakistan sail through its financial woes through deferred payment for oil imports and hard cash to make up for the Washington-led sanctions, Pakistan has been equally generous in providing military assistance to fight terrorism, train troops and defend the Kingdom’s security. The China-Pakistan relationship has also stood the test of time with the former supporting Pakistan against any aggression. In fact, Pakistan’s missile programme has been possible because of China’s assistance.

As for the relations between China and Saudi Arabia, the economic quid pro quo has multiplied between the two countries since 1990. According to figures cited by the former Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim Al Assaf, trade relations between Saudi Arabia and China grew more than 25 fold during the past decade. The trade volume between both the countries reached more than US $ 40 billion in 2008, and by 2011 the volume had hit $ 60 billion. Today it stands at approximately $ 50 billion. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest oil suppliers to China, and China exports a massive amount of products to the Saudi market.

Joining CPEC is no small step when it comes to Saudi Arabia. It means a shift in the way of looking at which country would dominate the world in the coming decades. It means shifting emphasis away from oil to manufacturing to generate wealth. It also means shifting reliance from the US and its allies to meet the Kingdom’s security needs. When Riyadh will connect its oil terminals with Gwadar via a pipeline, benefit will accrue from getting an export and storage hub for petrochemical products to finding a safer and more reliable route in the region.

Pakistan has always claimed CPEC to be a game changer, which will lift millions out of poverty. However, with the inclusion of Saudi Arabia the balance of power in favour of China may also be neutralised, giving more control to Pakistan. But before Pakistan could enjoy this new pattern, it needs to grapple with three issues. One is born of the secrecy that surrounds the CPEC-related agreements. Experts allege that China is charging high interest on loans given to build CPEC while the manpower, and other services used in the projects are Chinese. The argument goes that more than Pakistan it is China’s economy that will benefit from Gwadar. The challenge is to make CPEC neither a China- nor Saudi-driven project. Unless it has Pakistan’s footprint in terms of wealth generation using indigenous means, the project may turn Pakistan into a conduit, ensuring just a ‘secure route’ to the regional giants.

The second issue relates to the pro-Iran lobby. A comparison between Gwadar and Chabahar has been consistently made by Tehran, with India on its side, which has openly lobbied against CPEC. With Saudi Arabia being drawn in, the power dynamics of the Middle East – structured around the Shia-Sunni paradigm – may produce another flashpoint in Gwadar. To avoid a sectarian divide, Pakistan cannot afford tilting the balance towards Saudi Arabia at the cost of making Iran a pariah state.

The third issue concerns the region. As more power flows to India through the US’s military and diplomatic support, and Afghanistan is allowed to fall further into the terrorism quagmire, CPEC can get entangled in the power politics of the three versus the rest. Even though Gwadar is not a military base, the China-Saudi-Pakistan nexus in CPEC has a symbolic profile that transcends any tangible military presence. This issue however can only be handled with all the key players diffusing their power across the critical countries in the region.

Coinciding with Saudi Arabia’s joining CPEC is the Italian government’s intention to join Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative. Rome will be the first G-7 country to join CPEC. The agreement between China and Italy will be signed in November this year. If Europe as a whole joins, the Belt and Road initiative will change for the better the fate of billions of people in the world.

It is a matter of making a choice between becoming allies to wage war and kill millions in a few decades or to connect for a common economic cause to generate multiple benefits spawning centuries.


The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.