Pakistan’s need for Balancing ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran – Saad Marwat

(Image Credit: World Politics Review)

Riyadh has intensified its diplomatic and political efforts to regain its lost influence in the regional and international arena. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince visited Washington while King Salman called on Chinese premier Xi Jinping. The visit of the Deputy Crown prince is vital for many reasons. The relations between Washington and Riyadh were strained during Obama’s eight year tenure. Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as Iran nuclear deal reached between P5+1 and Tehran was the primary source of tension between United States and Saudi Arabia. According to JCPOA, the sanctions were to be lifted from Iran if it continued to conform to the prescribed thresholds and specifications of the IAEA. The deal had angered the Kingdom, which considers Tehran as its political and ideological arch rival in the region.

During the meeting between Saudi’s deputy crown prince and the US president Donald Trump, it was decided that ties between the two nations will be reset in Riyadh’s favour. After the meeting, the prince called Trump as the true friend of Muslims. Donald Trump during his election campaign strongly criticized the kingdom. But the recent meeting has once again consolidated the stance of realists. The visit is vital for Saudi Royal family which is feeling threatened by Iran’s rising influence in the region specially its gains in the Syrian War.

Furthermore, King Salman of Saudi Arabia is on a long tour of Asia. During his visit to China, a deal worth 65 billion dollars has been struck with Beijing. King Salman also desired to take part in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project launched by Beijing to connect China through land route to Europe and Africa. Saudi Arabia’s strategic location can make it an important part of OBOR, as it is connected to Asia, Europe and Africa.

The ties between Riyadh and Islamabad were affected when Pakistan’s parliament passed a bill that stopped Pakistani troops from taking part in Saudi led offensive in Yemen. Recently, Pakistani army Chief General Qamar Bajwa made a high level visit to the Kingdom. In the meeting between General Qamar Bajwa and Saudi military chief, it was decided that Pakistan will send a brigade to Saudi-Yemen border in order to protect the Southern areas of Kingdom from Houthi attacks. Riyadh’s diplomatic efforts have thus finally borne fruits.

The primary aim of the Kingdom is to balance the equation of power in the Middle East, which is disturbed by Iran’s rising influence in the region. Moreover, the Syrian peace deal efforts are taking place in the absence of Saudi Arabia, affecting the Kingdom’s influence in the region. On the other hand, Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa has played his cards wisely. Before visiting Saudi Arabia, General Bajwa met with Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Honardost. Both Sides agreed on solving all outstanding disputes through dialogue.

General Bajwa’s meeting with the Iranian envoy and House of Al-Saud indicates that Pakistan considers both Iran and Saudi Arabia as important part of their foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is a long term ally, while Iran is a neighbour with whom Pakistan shares a long border. Pakistan and Iran also has potential projects on the cards such as a gas pipeline and other regional integration proposals under the auspices of Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).

Moreover, in the recent Economic Cooperation Organization Summit, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif reiterated their stance of solving all key regional issues through dialogue and to promote economic and cultural ties. Iran has also rejected the alleged misconceptions that Chahbahar is rival to Gwadar and declared Chahbahar and Gwadar as sister ports. Iran has also showed its desire and interest to take part in CPEC.

Pakistan should support Riyadh in common threats due to the long strategic relations of Islamabad with the Kingdom. But in case of an open anti-Iran move by the Saudi Arabia, Islamabad should try its best to keep itself neutral. If it is not able to do so, then at least a semblance of neutral diplomatic posturing would send positive signals to Tehran. It is also in Pakistan’s interest to balance its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran because firstly, Pakistan is home to the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran.

What makes it more interesting is Pakistan is also home to second largest Sunni Population in the world after Indonesia. This sensitive sectarian configuration makes it all the more important for Pakistan to play its cards wisely in order to keep its Shia and Sunni population calm at home. So a complete tilt towards one at the cost of other would result in devastating consequences for the country.


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