Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday discussed how to ease Covid-19 travel restrictions, which have stranded around 400,000 Pakistani workers back home, foreign ministers of the two countries told reporters.

Islamabad took up the issue with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, who is on a one-day visit to the country.

FM Faisal is the first high profile Saudi official to arrive in Pakistan after cracks in their historically friendly relations earlier this year.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a joint news conference in Islamabad that around 400,000 of over two million Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia had been stranded at home due to travel restrictions.

“They are facing challenges, you know the travel restrictions and you know the issues of vaccination,” he said.

Highlighting the hardships being faced by Pakistani nationals, Qureshi expressed the hope that in view of the improved situation on the ground in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia would take steps to facilitate their travel to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, which bars direct travel from Pakistan, has only approved the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, so anyone arriving without one of those shots is required to quarantine at a cost many Pakistani workers say they cannot afford.

Most Pakistanis have received a Chinese vaccine, although the Saudi FM said his government had given Covid-19 shots to 1.7 million Pakistani workers.

The Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia contributes $7 billion, or a quarter of the country’s total annual remittances.

“We talked about the challenges that Covid-19 has imposed on all of us. It has imposed challenges, travel restrictions, all of these we are working on,” Prince Faisal said.

Would-be Pakistani expatriate workers, desperate to obtain a Pfizer/BioNTech or AstraZeneca Covid shot so they can travel to work in Saudi Arabia, have been holding violent protests, at times storming vaccination centres.

Pakistan has lately started allowing people under 40 who have to travel for jobs abroad to obtain the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines, of which the country has limited supply obtained through the COVAX system.

Enhancing economic ties

FM Qureshi said that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s leadership have agreed to establish the Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Consultative Council for enhancing economic linkages through bilateral relations.

“We have made good progress on what the structure should be, what the organisation should look like and what should be the work plan,” the FM said, adding that there would be focal persons in both the countries to oversee the progress made on this front.

The foreign minister further said that new areas, such as information, media, culture and entertainment, were also discussed during the bilateral talks.

“The vision 2023 is about transformation, and this is one area that had not been tapped into in the past, and we can contribute to,” Qureshi maintained

Read Delegations discuss bilateral ties ahead of Saudi FM’s visit

The foreign minister said that the two countries had been supportive of each other in difficult times. He further hoped that the kingdom would review its visa restrictions for Pakistanis.

The FM further informed that he had a discussion on climate change, and how to combat the issue collectively with international cooperation, with his Saudi counterpart.

FM Qureshi also thanked the Saudi government for its ‘unwavering support’ on FATF. “Their support has been phenomenal,” the top diplomat stated.

He added that Saudi Arabia had also been a part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir. The kingdom has been supportive and has shown clarity in supporting Pakistan on the disputed territory, he said.

Regarding the situation in Afghanistan, the foreign minister said that he had a good discussion on the matter with the Saudi minister.

“We discussed what to expect, what the challenges are and what opportunities lay ahead of us. Our approach is the same and our objectives are shared,” he said.

Qureshi further stated that there were immense opportunities for Saudi Arabia for investment in SEZs under the CPEC project. He said our skilled, semi-skilled workforce and professionals could also make significant contributions to the Saudi Vision 2030.

‘Hope to build momentum’

On the occasion, Prince Faisal bin Farhan thanked Pakistan for its warm welcome. “We discussed ways to further strengthen our strong ties. We want to enhance our relationship on an institutional basis,” he stated.

The Saudi foreign minister said, “We hope to build on the momentum of strong bonds based on our brotherhood, as the two countries have always stood by each other in difficult times.”

He termed the delegation-level talks as “very, very fruitful discussions” held on bilateral matters. All areas of broader spectrum came under discussion, with a special focus on economic ties, Prince Farhan added.

The Saudi foreign minister said his government would encourage businessmen of both countries to explore opportunities for investment in areas of technology.

On climate change, he expressed the Saudi commitment to continue working with Pakistan as the country pursued the vision of Prime Minister Imran Khan of achieving goals of preserving the environment.

The Saudi FM appreciated the contributions of the Pakistani community towards the development of Saudi Arabia.

He said Pakistan had done “exceptionally well” in overcoming the coronavirus.

The Saudi FM said security was the key factor in ensuring economic prosperity and vowed to facilitate the efforts for peace, whether in Kashmir, Palestine or Afghanistan.

Saudi FM’s visit

Saudi Foreign Minister reached Pakistan today on an official day-long visit at the invitation of Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

The Saudi top envoy is accompanied by a delegation comprising senior officials of the Saudi government.

During the visit, the two diplomats exchanged views on the entire gamut of bilateral relations and regional and international issues. The Saudi minister would also call upon other dignitaries during the visit, the Foreign Office stated.

“The visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister holds special significance in the backdrop of the recent visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia in May 2021,” the FO further said.

It will provide a timely opportunity to review progress in bilateral cooperation in line with the vision of the leadership of the two countries, the statement added.

Read Saudi Arabia to extend visas for stranded expats for free

“Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have long-standing and historic fraternal relations, rooted deep in common faith, shared history, and mutual support,” the press release added. “The relationship is marked by close cooperation in all fields and mutual collaboration on regional and international issues.”

Saudi Arabia is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir and had steadfastly supported the Kashmir cause, it added.

Frequent high-level visits were a key feature of the relationship that served to further deepen and broaden the relationship in myriad dimensions.

The communique added that the visit of the Saudi foreign minister would reinforce the positive momentum in high-level exchanges and deepen bilateral cooperation in diverse fields.

A day earlier, senior high-level delegations held talks on relations in the run-up to the Saudi foreign minister’s visit.

The key focus was on Saudi-Pak Supreme Coordination Council, the highest level platform to provide strategic direction to bilateral ties. Saudi side was led by Amb Eid Al-Thaqafi.

With additional input from APP.