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Will Saudi Arabia join Barrick in mining operations in the face of Baloch resistance?

Balochistan has one of the world's largest gold and copper reserves (Photo: Twitter)

The Baloch are most unhappy over reports that Saudi Arabia might join Canadian miner Barrick Gold in extracting copper and gold from the conflicted region of Balochistan.

Numerous Baloch sources told India Narrative that even if Saudi Arabia joins Barrick Gold in gold and copper mining, their stand that Balochistan’s wealth is being plundered by Islamabad and its allies remains unchanged.

Pakistan has been extracting minerals from the region with Chinese help besides allowing Beijing to construct a deep water port in the coastal town of Gwadar – activities which have been stoutly resisted by the local Baloch community through mass agitations and armed resistance.

It has been reported that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, is likely to pick up a considerable stake in the Reko Diq mine operated by Barrick Gold. The strategy also fits in with the new line of thought among the Gulf nations that they should be investing in Pakistan instead of bailing it out repeatedly.

PIF’s possible partnership in the mine became known after Mark Bristow, CEO of Barrick Gold told news agency Reuters that while his company will not dilute its stake, it has no reservations if PIF takes up the Pakistan government’s stake. He also said that he is aware of the close relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Currently, Barrick holds a 50 per cent stake in the Reko Diq mines with the rest shared between the federal government and the Balochistan government.

If Saudi Arabia’s PIF indeed picks up stake in mining operations, it would seem like a clever ploy by Pakistan to drag more foreign powers and companies into a conflict zone. Despite pumping in troops to quell the insurgency and enforcing a media ban in the area, Pakistan has been unable to curb Baloch insurgency.

Qazi Dad Mohammad Rehan, the Information and Cultural Secretary of the Baloch National Movement (BNM) says that “Balochistan has a rich history, with extensive commercial, cultural, and religious links to the surrounding regions. Arab countries have a particularly strong relationship with Balochistan, making it all the more disappointing when they support the ongoing occupation by Punjab”.

Rehan told India Narrative that investments from Saudi Arabia or other countries will only “serve to compound the current problems and lead to a worsening of the situation”.

Rehan warned that the conflict in Balochistan is likely to worsen.

“It is not safe to invest here, and any guarantees given by the Pakistani Army to protect an investment would be subject to the same human rights violations that have already worsened after the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)”, referring to President Xi Jinping’s $62 billion investment in Pakistan that is under sporadic but deadly attacks by Baloch rebels.

The tumultuous province occupies over 40 per cent of Pakistan’s landmass and has one of the longest running insurgencies. Well-armed Baloch nationalist groups have been waging a seven-decade-old insurgency seeking independence from Pakistan. Bordering Afghanistan and Iran, Baloch rebels claim to have shot down two military helicopters in 2022 and have mounted damaging strikes on Pakistani Army camps.

In response, the Pakistani government has sent in attack helicopters and drones to support the ground forces.

One of the Baloch diaspora members told India Narrative on conditions of anonymity that the role of Gulf countries in Balochistan is not new.

“The Saudi role in Balochistan in helping religious Mullahs is a long history. It has been an obstacle against the secular Baloch and the freedom struggle. The Pakistani agencies have been secretly spreading religious fundamentalism in Balochistan through these mullahs”, said a member of the Baloch diaspora.

He reiterated the Baloch feeling of being alienated and economically exploited by successive Pakistani governments, pointing out that the Baloch insurgents carried out two attacks this month – one targeting workers toiling on CPEC-related projects and the other targeting Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri – the deputy chairman of the Pakistani upper house of parliament and a coalition partner in Prime Minister Sharif’s government.

Armed resistance to mining of Baloch resources may not be the only problem that lurks ahead for foreign mining agencies.

The Baloch diaspora, which has been steadily spreading across the Western nations, may try to take on Barrick Gold through the legal route, premising its opposition on the reality that the company does not have the approval of the local community and is working in a conflict zone.

Activist Lateef Johar Baloch has locked horns with the global mining giant in various forums in Canada with the help of environmental organisations and activists.

A cash-strapped Pakistan, with its economy in doldrums due to high inflation, low foreign exchange, food shortages and power cuts, is on a selling spree. It has already hived off Karachi Port operations to a UAE company, sold off iconic buildings in the USA and is privatising its national airline.

Amidst an overdrive to invite foreign funds and stabilise the country politically, the Shehbaz government also organised a minerals summit, ‘Dust to development: Investment opportunities in Pakistan’, on August 1. Saudi Arabia’s PIF had attended the summit along with Barrick Gold.

In its haste to raise funds and pull-out Pakistan from the tentacles of a looming economic crisis, Pakistan just might have invited more opposition to its gold and copper mining projects in an war-zone Balochistan, where Chinese nationals work in uncomfortable conditions.