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Pakistan’s army chief visits Saudi Arabia amid economic crisis

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Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s new army chief has held talks with top Saudi officials, including the defence minister, on his first official trip to the Gulf kingdom as the South Asian country faces an unprecedented economic crisis.

General Syed Asim Munir, who took charge in November, has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in visiting Saudi Arabia – a close defence and economic ally – on his maiden overseas trip. He will also visit the United Arab Emirates during the nearly one-week trip.

“The COAS will be meeting the senior leadership of both brotherly countries to discuss matters of mutual interest, military-to-military cooperation and bilateral relations focusing on security-related subjects,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, said in a statement on Wednesday.

General Munir discussed military cooperation with Saudi defence minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in the capital Riyadh on Thursday, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

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“We emphasised the strategic partnership between our brotherly countries, reviewed the bilateral military and defense relations, and discussed ways of strengthening our cooperation,” Prince Khalid bin Salman tweeted.

‘Vulnerable financial situation’

The current visit by General Munir came at a time when Pakistan faced a crippling economic crisis as the country’s foreign reserves have depleted to less than $6bn – its lowest since April 2014 – which can just cover a month of import. Inflation has been skyrocketing while the country is also dealing with the aftermath of last year’s catastrophic floods that resulted in an estimated loss of more than $30bn.

Earlier this week, Pakistani finance minister Ishaq Dar in a news conference expressed hope that Saudi Arabia will park its deposits in the central bank to provide some relief to the economy.

Islamabad needed Saudi money to shore foreign reserves and ensure a safety valve from default. Riyadh deposited $3bn in November 2021, under the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Last month, the kingdom extended the terms of the fund.

Since taking office last April, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has travelled to several Gulf countries to seek economic aid and investment. According to official data between April to November last year, Saudi Arabia has given more than $900m in aid and $500m for importing oil. Qatar promised to invest $3bn during Sharif’s trip to Doha in August.

Islamabad-based analyst Mohammed Faisal believed that General Munir’s visit must be seen from the lens of the economy as it comes at a time of “particularly vulnerable financial situation”.

“Pakistani leadership is looking towards Saudi royals to shore up the depleting foreign reserves to avert default. For Islamabad, a key outcome of the trip would be a Saudi announcement of financial assistance,” he told Al Jazeera.

Pakistan managed to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) worth $1.17bn in August. But the next tranche of the $1.18bn loan has been delayed. Islamabad is still negotiating with IMF for the next tranche.

In September, the Pakistan finance minister resigned while the government seems unwilling to accept IMF conditions, including increasing levies on fuel.

Pakistan has been teetering on the brink of default, which, in simple terms, means the country cannot pay back what it is owed and the treasury does not have sufficient money to meet its debt obligations. Experts have feared Pakistan is headed to a Sri Lanka-like default situation and that it can be only prevented by deft handling of the economy.

From the Saudi perspective, Faisal said, the Gulf nation wanted to maintain the relationship with Pakistan because the country was an important element of Saudi regional strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is aware that Pakistan, a large Muslim-majority country endorses Saudi claim to be the guardian of two of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina,” Faisal told Al Jazeera.

Close ties

With the relationship between the two nations going back more than 50 years, this is not the first time a Pakistani leader, either civilian or military, has picked the kingdom as their first destination after taking charge.

Both the current Prime Minister Sharif and his predecessor Khan travelled to Saudi Arabia on their maiden visits in 2018 and 2022 respectively.

The last two former army chiefs, General Qamar Javed Bajwa – Munir’s predecessor, and General Raheel Sharif, went to Saudi Arabia for their first trip.

Sharif, after his retirement in November 2016, subsequently became the commander-in-chief of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, a 41-nation alliance of Muslim countries located in Riyadh.

Pakistan’s former envoy to Saudi Arabia Shahid M Amin said that the relationship between the two nations is historic in nature and, while Pakistan often needs economic support, it also has provided security assistance to Saudi Arabia.

“The two countries have engaged in various sectors such as economy, labour, trade, security and the fact that the current army chief went to Saudi Arabia, it is merely a continuation of a pattern.”

Amin told Al Jazeera that Pakistani manpower was the key driver for Saudi development for more than five decades. Pakistan, too, Amin said, has made commitments to protect the kingdom in case of any security concerns.

A retired senior military officer, Omar Mahmood Hayat, concurred with Amin’s views and said that the relationship is time-tested.

“One of our oldest and biggest bilateral military exercises has been with Saudi Arabia. We have a very strong training team deployed in Saudi for decades,” he said.

General Munir himself has served time in Saudi Arabia as part of the Pakistani army’s close defence cooperation with the kingdom.

Hayat further added that with Kingdom itself a very strong member of various international forums, it helps echo Pakistan’s point of view, as well.

“It makes a lot of sense that this should be the first visit as has always been,” he said.

 

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Kashmir is bleeding. So is its economy

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On January 1, 2023, as the world celebrated the start of a new year, several families were mourning in the Rajouri district of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Armed men stormed a village and killed four civilians, injuring six others. Two more civilians were killed the following day.

Just a few weeks earlier, on December 13, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai had presented investment data for Jammu and Kashmir. The numbers spoke for themselves: investments have fallen by 55 percent over the past four years.

Together, the killings and the declining investments contradict two central arguments that have been at the heart of the Indian government’s rationale for the 2019 abrogation of the semi-autonomous status that the region previously enjoyed: that the move would help improve security and spur economic development.

In the past, federal governments in New Delhi have often blamed Jammu and Kashmir’s woes on local governments in power in the region. That’s no longer an excuse that works.

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When the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi eliminated Article 370 of the Indian constitution — which gave Kashmir “special status” — it also carved out the territory of Ladakh from the region. Kashmir’s statehood was withdrawn, and it was made a union territory, directly controlled by New Delhi.

Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t even have the disempowered legislature that other union territories have — the region hasn’t had elections in seven years. Yet it should now increasingly be clear, if it wasn’t previously, that sidelining democratic processes and principles, and steamrolling constitutional provisions, aren’t working in improving the region’s security or economic allure.

Follow the money

The abrogation of Article 370 allowed non-residents to buy and own land in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. Critics of the region’s previous special status frequently cited restrictions on land ownership as a major reason why private sector industries were reluctant to set up businesses there.

However, data published by the Indian government’s Ministry of Home Affairs — and made public by Rai — calls a bluff on those claims. Total investment in 2021-22 in Jammu and Kashmir stood at $46m, down from $50.5m the previous year, and dramatically less than the $102.8m spent in 2017-18.

While the COVID-19 pandemic no doubt affected Kashmir’s economy, the statistics suggest that wasn’t the biggest factor in investments drying up. After all, the steepest fall in investments came the year that the Indian government ended Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, before the pandemic, halving from $72.3m in 2018-19 to $36.3m in 2019-20.

Track the bullets

Things aren’t much better on the security front. Although political protests have subsided because most pro-independence leaders have been imprisoned, armed groups appear to have changed their tactics.

Attacks on civilians have increased in the last few years and are increasingly being directed at non-resident Hindus and the minority Kashmiri Pandit community. A S Dulat, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, recently highlighted the sophistication of these attacks. The targeted killings, he said, demonstrated that the armed groups have a strong intelligence network and possibly have members within the government.

At least 18 Kashmiri Pandits and non-resident Hindus have been killed in Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370.

As with the economy, the Indian government’s own data does not support claims that armed groups have been contained. The number of attacks by such groups was 229 in 2021, not significantly different from many previous years: There were 279 incidents in 2017, 322 in 2016, 208 in 2015, 222 in 2014 and 170 in 2013, the year before Modi came to power.

What’s really at play

The Indian government had claimed that Article 370 restricted people’s participation in the political process and led to a few families dominating the politics of the region. However, since 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has taken steps to further disempower local Kashmiris.

First, constituency boundaries for the region’s legislature were redrawn in a way that gives Hindu-majority Jammu a greater say in elections than its population, relative to Muslim-majority Kashmir’s, merits. In effect, that strengthens the chances of the BJP coming to power in Jammu and Kashmir.

Then a revision of the voter list was carried out, giving voting rights to outsiders. Jammu and Kashmir is home to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and army personnel — if allowed to vote, their electoral influence is going to be significant.

Some Kashmiri leaders have invoked the region’s 1987 elections which were allegedly rigged and were considered a tipping point when the armed separatist movement in Kashmir took off.

Meanwhile, armed groups may continue to adopt attacks on non-local civilians as the mainstay of their strategy to signal their opposition to demographic changes attempted by New Delhi.

While Kashmiris and non-locals alike suffer, there is no reason to expect that Modi and his government will change their policy towards the region. The BJP’s hardline approach towards Kashmir helps it bolster its image in the rest of India as a party that is tough on “terrorism” and “separatism”.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. The BJP’s policies have led to increased insecurity for people living in the region — whether they’re Hindu or Muslim. And there has been no economic payoff, either.

 

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