Pakistan, Saudi Arabia to work on easing travel restrictions


FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud arrives to attend the G20 meeting of foreign and development ministers in Matera, Italy, June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - 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 Pakistan.

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

His Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood 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.

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 Al Saud 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," Al Saud 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. [L2N2OA1Y6]

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.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by David Holmes)

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