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Pakistan appoints former military general as Saudi envoy

KARACHI, Pakistan: Pakistan has appointed a recently retired army general as its ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says, as the South Asian nation works to repair ties between the two countries.

Lieutenant-General Bilal Akbar, who retired from the military last month, will replace Raja Ali Ejaz, a career diplomat, said a brief statement by the ministry on Tuesday.

Akbar served in several high-ranking positions during his more than 20 years in the Pakistan army, including as the chief of general staff, commander of the Rawalpindi-based X Corps and head of the paramilitary forces Pakistan Rangers in Sindh province.

His appointment comes as Pakistan seeks to rebuild ties with its Gulf ally, which have been frayed in recent months, seeing Saudi Arabia demand repayment of $3 billion in loans and reject renewal of a deferred oil payment facility to the cash-strapped nation.

Pakistan repaid $1 billion of those loans through Chinese financing last month, with $1 billion previously repaid in July. Another payment of $1 billion is due this month.

The two countries have been at loggerheads over Saudi Arabia’s perceived inaction on the issue of Kashmir, a Himalayan region split between Pakistan and India but claimed by both in its entirety.

In August, the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia spat came to a boil when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member bloc of Islamic countries largely controlled by Saudi Arabia, to do more to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

“If you cannot convene it, then I will be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris,” Qureshi had said at the time.

The statement was an unprecedented low in the Pakistan-Saudi relations, and its aftermath saw Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, swiftly flying to Riyadh later that month in an attempt to quell tensions.

Pakistan’s military has directly ruled the country for roughly half of its 74-year history, and under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, has further tightened its control over security and aspects of foreign policy.

Akbar’s appointment makes him the latest former military officer to be posted as the head of Pakistan’s high commission in Riyadh, a position that has often been occupied by retired military officers in recent years.

Recent months have seen the rift between the two erstwhile allies begin to heal, with Qureshi holding frequent talks with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.

A Pakistani foreign ministry statement on the latest such phone call, on January 7, made particular note of Qureshi thanking Saudi Arabia for “for its support during the 47th Session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers in Niamey, in November 2020, in particular for the adoption of OIC resolutions on Kashmir dispute”.