RIYADH: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have the closest of relations, brotherly and fraternal, said Ahmad Farooq, Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, reflecting on his one-year tenure in Riyadh.

“This has been a very rewarding experience for me being in a country where Pakistan is so well respected and we have such a strong bond between our leadership and our people,” Farooq told Arab News.

Farooq took charge as head of mission on May 20, 2023, and has now completed a year since his tenure began.

The year he has spent in the country, he said, reinforced “all facets of our relations and it has given me the opportunity (to see) how we can take it further, make it stronger, and bring the countries closer, especially on the economic side.”

The ambassador highlighted four major areas that he described as “most promising” in strengthening economic partnerships between the two countries. These are information technology, agriculture, mining and defense.

“Information technology is a priority area for the Kingdom under its Vision 2030 and on the Pakistan side we have a very strong ecosystem of companies and IT experts with a long history of providing products and solutions worldwide.”

The ambassador said that bringing Pakistani IT companies into the Kingdom is another goal that will welcome new talent and promote business opportunities and investment in the sector.

Agriculture and food security are other fields in which the two countries can cooperate further, he said.

“Pakistan has a very strong tradition of agriculture and what we want to do is that Pakistan becomes a source of food security for the Kingdom,” he added.

The ambassador explained that Pakistan looks to the Kingdom “for investment in our agriculture sector that translates into more production and contributes to the Kingdom’s food security requirements.”

He added that mining is another area where Saudi Arabia and Pakistan can collaborate.

“This (mining) again is a priority area for the Kingdom under its Vision 2030, and Pakistan has immense mineral resources which still have to be exploited,” he said.

“We have had the strongest sector historically where the two countries have collaborated together, which is the defense sector,” he added.

Farooq described as “huge” the changes he has seen in the Kingdom since his return.

“My first exposure to Riyadh was almost 25 years back, I came as a student to learn Arabic at King Saud University. When I compare the Kingdom from that time, it is a huge transformation and the society has opened up. I’m not only talking about the economic transformation but the social and the cultural transformation is huge and it’s very welcoming,” he said.

The ambassador said that everywhere he looked women are actively contributing to society.

Discussing daily life in Riyadh the ambassador pointed to the many options for entertainment and fine dining.

“The Kingdom being home to the Two Holy Mosques is something that is very close to my heart and I am really enjoying it, having that access and being able to visit Madinah and Makkah when you have the desire to do so,” he said.

The ambassador also highlighted his deep appreciation for the Kingdom’s dedication to enhancing the Hajj experience for pilgrims in Makkah.

“Pakistan has amongst the largest number of pilgrims coming for Hajj, and also if you look at the data we are amongst the largest number of people who come for Umrah,” he said. “This year alone we are expecting around 160,000 Hajj pilgrims coming from Pakistan.”

Farooq said the Makkah Route Initiative began two years from Islamabad and that it has turned out to be a big success.

“It’s a great convenience for the pilgrims coming from Pakistan,” the envoy said.

Many of the pilgrims coming for Hajj are elderly, he said, and, for them, it is convenient to complete all the immigration procedures in Islamabad. When they arrive in the Kingdom they can simply leave the airport and have their luggage delivered to their hotel.

“It’s a big help, and we are very grateful to the Saudi authorities, they are putting in a lot of resources and effort into running it and it is a very positive movement and a big help to the pilgrims,” Farooq said.

This year, after high demand and success of the initiative, the Kingdom has extended the program to Karachi.

“Both the north and south are now covered by the Makkah Route and we look forward to expanding it to other cities in the future,” the ambassador said.