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Saudi crown prince orders 2,100 Pakistani prisoners released

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani President Arif Alvi confers the country’s highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Pakistan (Order of Pakistan), on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the President House yesterday. — AFP

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has ordered the release of about 2,100 Pakistani prisoners from the kingdom’s jails during a high-profile visit to Islamabad, Pakistan’s information minister said yesterday. Prince Mohammed arrived in Pakistan on Sunday at the beginning of an Asian tour, which will include China. Saudi Arabia on Sunday signed investment agreements with Pakistan worth $20 billion.

The crown prince had “ordered the immediate release of 2,107 Pakistani prisoners”, after a request by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said in a post on Twitter. The fate of thousands of Pakistani workers locked up in jails across the Middle East is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where there is a perception the prisoners are mostly poor laborers who have no real legal recourse. Huge numbers of Pakistanis travel to the Middle East every year, with many working on construction sites or as domestic helpers. The remittances they send back are vital for Pakistan’s dollar-starved economy.

Saudi Arabia also vowed to “de-escalate” rising tensions between Pakistan and India as Prince Mohammed prepared to travel from Islamabad to New Delhi. “Our objective is to try to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, neighboring countries, and to see if there is a path forward to resolving those differences peacefully,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. Following the pledge, the crown prince – widely known as MBS – held a series of meetings yesterday afternoon with the Pakistani leadership before flying on to India.

Islamabad is also facing a serious balance of payments crisis and hopes the huge deals signed over the two-day visit – seven separate agreements and memorandums of understanding – will boost its struggling economy. Pakistan laid on a lavish welcome for the crown prince, including a 21-gun salute, fighter jet escort and honor guard. He also received the country’s highest civilian award yesterday, the Nishan-e-Pakistan (Order of Pakistan), before heading to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After India, MBS expected to finish the Asian tour with two days in China on Thursday and Friday. Analysts have said the tour is part of a Gulf pivot to rising Asia as a growing oil market, but also a timely demonstration to the West that MBS is not an international pariah. Pakistan has also been accused by its western neighbor Iran of harboring militants who carried out an attack that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards last week. The Guards’ commander has also vowed to make Pakistan pay. But Islamabad received a boost from Jubeir, who called Tehran a “chief sponsor of terrorism” during yesterday’s live press conference.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed a long alliance dating back to the founding of the Islamic republic. However, Islamabad has also tried to walk a fine line by maintaining warm relations with its neighbor – and Saudi Arabia’s regional foe – Iran. Jubeir also noted that Riyadh continues to participate in a months-long push by Washington for peace talks in Afghanistan, saying that if the war-torn country can be stabilized, “it will be to benefit… the region as a whole”.

Last week the Taleban announced they would attend talks in Islamabad with the US and Pakistan yesterday that had been due to coincide with the crown prince’s visit. Neither Washington nor Pakistan confirmed the talks, however, and the Taleban announced Sunday that they had been postponed as its militants “were unable to travel due to the US and UN blacklist”. Taleban negotiators have recently visited Russia, Qatar, and the UAE. Fresh talks are set to be held between the US and the militants in Doha on Feb 25. – Agencies

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