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Shahbaz Sharif left for Saudi Arabia on a special plane

28 December, 2017

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LAHORE: Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif left for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. According to an official press release, the chief minister will hold ‘important’ meetings in the kingdom, besides performing Umra. No word was given about the nature of the meetings.

The departure, however, set many tongues wagging as Mr Sharif travelled in a special plane sent by the kingdom. Also the visit came at the heels of his nomination as the PML-N candidate for the prime minister office.

A couple of days ago, Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Admiral Nawaf Ahmad Al Maliki, along with envoys of around two dozen countries, had called on the chief minister.

Federal Climate Change Minister Mushahidullah Khan told Dawn by phone that various issues of international and national importance would be discussed during the meetings in Saudi Arabia. He termed the visit good news for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, but did not elaborate it.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, a close aide to the chief minister, seconded Mr Khan’s views and said: “Mian Shahbaz Sharif will definitely discuss issues of national importance — not just of Punjab — with his Saudi hosts. Saudi Arabia has been our trusted brotherly country for decades and we are relying on it in many economic and other matters of international importance.”

A PML-N leader, who requested not to be named, said that for many years the United States used to play its role in Pakistani politics through Saudi Arabia and the chief minister’s visit should be seen in that perspective.

In response to a question, he said the Panama Papers case, besides other issues, would definitely figure in the meetings. He said Shahbaz Sharif presently was not in a position to offer anything to the Saudis but could promise something in the future.

The opposition also senses that to its disadvantage as the visit is being used to build stature of the chief minister as future prime minister of the country.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s spokesman Fawad Chaudhry said they’re concerned at the visit undertaken without any prior notice to any authority or institution. He said people should be taken into confidence about the purpose and objectives of the visit.

The Sharifs used to enjoy good relations with the Saudis who had rescued them from military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2000 and hosted the family during its seven-year exile in Jeddah. But the relations got sour after Islamabad refused to lend Riyadh its forces for the Yemen war.

Some believe that the issue was instrumental in making some Gulf states cooperate with Pakistani authorities in the Panama Papers investigations against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

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