By Yasmeen Aftab Ali
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) recently visited Pakistan and was warmly received by Prime Minister Imran Khan, who later drove the Crown Prince to the PM house. The visit followed on heels of the Pulwama attack, with a knee jerk reaction by India blaming Pakistan’s complicity in the incident.
The Crown Prince signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and deals worth $20 billion within hours of landing, mostly in the fields of petrochemicals, oil refining and energy sector. The visit also saw the formation of the Supreme Coordination Council which will oversee the progress on various deals and MOUs between both the countries. Dawn news, in this regard, reported, “Co-chaired by (Imran) Khan and MBS, the council was formed to put in place a high-level institutional mechanism to fast-track decisions in key areas of bilateral cooperation, and for close monitoring of their implementation” (February 17, 2019).
After a day’s gap of his Pakistan trip, Prince MBS then visited India. Breaking protocol, Indian PM Modi received the Crown Prince at the airport, only to have the Crown Prince drive away in his own car. The Crown Prince, however, did announce a $1 billion investment in India’s farming sector and infrastructure. On the other hand, in the joint statement between both the nations, India failed to extract a condemnation of Pakistan’s “involvement” in the Pulwama attack. This was viewed as a huge diplomatic failure by India.
However, there is a much bigger picture to the visit and its cascading effects on the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have historically engaged in an ideological conflict and a proxy war. The visit by the Saudi Crown Prince to Pakistan did not go well with Iran. Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, who is the special military adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “advised” Islamabad that Riyadh must not be trusted. As per reports by the Tasnim News Agency, he was quoted saying that “there will be no trace of Al Saud in Saudi Arabia by 2030.” He based the message on a report put together by 16 organizations in the United States. The report doubted the stability of the Saud ruling family. The report also mentioned how Iran was growing in its regional influence.
Iran also accused the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for the suicide attack that killed 27 troops near the Pakistani border. However, the accusation was later diverted to Pakistan, stating that the attack was orchestrated from “inside Pakistan.” “The Pakistan’s government, who has housed these anti-revolutionaries and threats to Islam, knows where they are and they are supported by Pakistan’s security forces,” said Revolutionary Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, referring to terror group Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”). Moreover, both Tehran and New Delhi supported each other in “attacking” Pakistan for attacks in Indian occupied Kashmir and Iran.
There is another angle to this escalating situation as explained by Adnan Adil, political analyst for SAMAA TV. He believes that “Afghanistan is all set to get connected to India via Chabahar from 24th February 2019 and the first trade convoy will involve 23 trucks carrying 570 tonnes of goods.” Hence, both India and Iran are driven by economic interests.
Iran is interested in a free trade zone near Gwadar – to accelerate its economic development that has been held back from many years of sanctions. Further, Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals in the energy products market. India, on the other hand, is rearing its head vying to be a regional leader and, without a doubt, the development of Chahbahar will help her regional status.
In this regard, Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst Indian Ocean Research Programme writes, “India, however, does not appear to seek to only import Iranian oil; it wishes to invest in Iranian oil and gas fields, thus further securing its energy from that country”. Chahbahar, once it takes off, will offer better ingress to India into Afghanistan and Afghan markets. This will in turn lead to a stronger Indian say in the Afghan government. This will also improve India’s chances to angle for Turkmenistan’s gas and Central Asian energy resources.
On the other hand, India has also made active efforts to sabotage Pakistan’s mega projects, especially the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, in Balochistan. In 2016, Kulbhushan Jadhav – an Indian spy caught in Balochistan and later interrogated – “revealed that he he had been imparting Naval fighting training to Baloch separatists in an attempt to target Pakistani ports”. His actions were also a proof of how the Indian intelligence agency had earmarked millions “for subverting the China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (The News – May 11, 2015).
Because of these circumstances, Pakistan is currently facing a tough task in balancing its ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is a Sunni dominated country, however, it also boasts the highest number of Shias residing within its borders after Iran. Moreover, the country also shares a porous border with Iran to the tune of some 900 kilometers. Hence, many in Pakistan feel that, given the circumstances, Pakistan needs to form coherent policy that would balance ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, without compromising on its regional position.
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yasmeen_9