Top government officials from Saudi Arabia have been making a beeline in recent days to visit Pakistan.
While the importance being given to the Pakistan government may assuage the ego of some of our leaders and people, the frequent visits are also putting extraordinary pressure on Islamabad to respond positively to Saudi wishes.
The Saudi wishes are clear and obvious. Riyadh wants Pakistan to become an active partner of Saudi Arabia in its fight against some of its enemies, including the Sunni militant group Islamic State, or Daesh, and Yemen’s Houthis, who are Shi’ites. It also wishes Pakistan to side with Saudi Arabia against Iran in their ongoing cut-throat tussle for supremacy in the Gulf region.
Pakistan’s efforts to offer itself as a mediator in the Iranian-Saudi dispute have no real takers. Mediation represents the easy way out of the tricky situation in which Pakistan is presently placed. However, Pakistan isn’t seen as sufficiently neutral and adequately influential to play such a role. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has offered this role to Pakistan yet and they are unlikely to do so in future. Rather, both countries, particularly Saudi Arabia would want Pakistan to take sides instead of staying neutral.
The Iranians, on the other hand, would be satisfied if Pakistan remains neutral given the traditionally close Pakistani-Saudi relations. The Iranians have adopted a wait-and-see approach and apparently done some quiet diplomacy instead of publicly trying to sway Pakistan’s stance in its favour. Islamabad, on its part, doesn’t want to annoy one or the other, but it seems it risks annoying both by not taking sides in the conflict.
Three senior Saudi government officials, including its foreign minister Adel bin Ahmad Al-Jubeir and finally the Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, have paid visits to Pakistan in recent days and piled up pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to actively play its role in the 34-member Islamic military alliance.
Islamabad wants to stay clear of the Saudi-Iran tussle due to worries that this could fuel the Sunni-Shia disputes in Pakistan. It is assuring the Saudi royal family that Pakistan would come to Saudi Arabia’s rescue in case of any threat to its territorial integrity and also extend help to enable it to fight terrorism by training Saudi forces. However, it seems the Saudis weren’t satisfied with Pakistan’s response as they were apparently hoping for greater commitments of support from it.
The Saudi pressure on Pakistan couldn’t have come at a worst time. Pakistan is already under intense pressure from India to take prompt and decisive action on the basis of information provided by it against the alleged planners of the recent suicide attack on the Pathankot airbase in India’s Punjab province. India’s perceived restraint, despite the daring assault on the airbase, put Pakistan under further pressure to act against the militant group, Jaish-i-Mohammad, and its leader Maulana Masood Azhar.
India also postponed the keenly-awaited scheduled meeting of the foreign secretaries of the two countries on January 15 and linked it with Pakistani cooperation to hunt down the Pathankot attackers.
As if this wasn’t enough, Afghanistan and the US also continued to apply pressure on Pakistan to use its influence on the Afghan Taliban to persuade them to hold peace talks with the Afghan government. Pakistan was willing to do the needful, but its focus of attention on helping resolve the Afghan conflict could be distracted by the events happening in the Gulf due to the Iranian-Saudi struggle for supremacy and also on its eastern border with India.
In the face of such sustained pressures from different quarters, Pakistan has done well to hold its nerve and make decisions in the national interest. In particular, it has been able to deflect the Saudi pressure despite being under obligation to side with Riyadh on account of past Saudi generosity toward it.
Though Pakistan has joined the Saudi-led, 34-member military alliance, it hasn’t made any real commitment to it until the Saudis take it into confidence regarding Pakistan’s role in the coalition. To clarify the matter, the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, declared that Pakistan won’t contribute troops for combat mission inside Saudi Arabia or any other country. He also claimed Riyadh had not made any demand for deployment of Pakistani ground troops in Saudi Arabia. If this is so, it would be the second time that Pakistan would have made a decision that seems to fall short of Saudi expectations.
Related article: Saudi Arabia’s flawed strategic move
However, Pakistan has to devise a strategy that won’t annoy the Saudis to an extent that their long and close relations face rupture. The two countries need each other and would have to find ways to maintain their special relationship in view of their importance in the Muslim world.
By the same yardstick, Pakistan cannot afford to alienate neighbouring Iran. Neighbours could make life easy and also difficult for each other. Pakistan’s relations with Iran sometimes come under strain when Sunni militants cross the Iran-Pakistan border to launch attacks in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province. The relationship is also tested when Pakistani Shi’ites are attacked by Sunni extremists or allegations are made that the Iranians are funding Shia organisations in Pakistan to counter the Saudi-backed groups.
In no way should Pakistan become involved in the affairs of another country for the sake of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Tehran and Riyadh are playing a costly and high stakes game that has been going on for years and could continue forever considering the fact that both are determined and resourceful. Their rivalry has many dimensions and is being carried out in a number of battlegrounds and it is best for Pakistan, already confronted by a host of challenges, to stay clear of the feud.
Islamabad also should be wary of the Western, or American to be specific, role in this scenario because the West has sometimes exploited the sectarian, Sunni-Shia divide in the Islamic world to achieve its goals.