The past week has seen both the Saudi Arabian foreign minister and defense ministers visiting Pakistan. As the second largest Muslim country in the world, and one that has a sizeable Shia population, with a large professionally trained army, Pakistan has to manage its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and not allow itself to be used by either one against the other.
The Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a dangerous tit for tat game which is being escalated in each round as they test to see ‘who says chicken first.’ The current events started with the Saudis decapitating the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqar al Nimr, ostensibly on charges of inciting terrorism. But most believe that the real reason was that hehad been calling for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and emerged as a powerful force during the Arab spring. The situation was further ignited when Iranian leadership condemning the execution using strong and disparaging comments about the incited the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran.
As matters currently stand Iran has told its citizens they cannot go to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah. And Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties, halted air traffic and commercial links with Iran. The GCC countries have expressed their support for Saudi Arabia; Bahrain has cut ties, Kuwait recalled its Ambassador and UAE downgraded its ties with Iran. Emiratis have been reluctant to do more given that half a million Iranians live in the country and have an estimated $300bn invested in their economy. It already feared the movement of some of this money out of their country given the improving international situation for Iran.
For the Muslim world which is suffering, internally and externally, from the consequences of radicalization of some of its adherents. The last thing needed is two of its important countries to start sparring amongst themselves and detract from the real issue of exterminating radicalism. In addition, it raises the divisive issue of sectarianism in many countries not least Pakistan. However, it is clear for Saudi Arabia and Iran what is taking place is explained less by religion and more by Machiavellian rules of power and politics.
During the past tumultuous forty years, while the Saudis bathed in the reflection of the World’s Hyperpower, the Iranians remained in the doghouse and Pakistan and Afghanistan were gutted as societies. Saudi Arabia had de facto claimed the mantle of leadership of the Muslim countries; through its political involvement in Asia by subsidizing jihadists against the Soviet Union and a strong petrodollar economy. It was further bolstered by its close relationship with the USA, who with the collapse of the Soviet Union remained the sole Superpower for almost 3 decades.
However, 2015 saw a confluence of events which has resulted in Saudi Arabia throwing caution to the wind. The first was the death of King Abdullah and the crowning of King Salman with his dependence on his young and ambitious twenty-nine year old son, Prince Mohammad Salman, who has been made defense minister. The latter decided to engage in a more assertive foreign policy and made the decision to go into Yemen to boost his credentials as a strong military commander and potential aspirant for the throne. The air campaign started with a bang as Saudis expecting their latest military equipment to overawe the Iranian backed Shiite Houthis, unfortunately the campaign has been more of one long whimper. Interestingly, under King Salman the cautiousness and predictability of the Saudis that the West always appreciated seems to have been thrown to the wind and so far it is being hit by a strong headwind detrimental to the kingdoms interests.
The second has been the potential re-emergence of Iran, sanctified through its nuclear deal with the US. This has created a specter for Saudi Arabia, of a losing importance with the US in the Middle East, critics have accused it of naivete and reacting like ‘a woman scorned’.
The proxy war in Syria had already been underway with the Iranian’s supporting President Bashar al Assad against the Saudi backed Sunni rebels in the country. However, the recent state of affairs in which it seems efforts for peace between the players in Syria may involve accepting President Assad retaining his position is something the Saudis viscerally hate and do not want to accept even for a temporary period. For the Saudis, happily, the current antagonistic atmosphere between them and the Iranians has ensured the whole idea is a dead duck for the time being.
For Pakistan, Iran is an important neighboring country with whom it has cordial relations. Iran was the first country in 1947 to recognize the state of Pakistan, both countries see a further uptick in economic relations once sanctions are removed, as well as having a stronger energy relationship through the proposed Iran gas pipeline.
Pakistan-Saudi brotherly relations were strongly consolidated during the 1980’s jihad on Soviet Union and thereafter remained resilient with the Saudi’s often bankrolling Pakistan during troubled periods. During the last decade of financial crisis and Pakistan’s balance of payment crisis the Saudis helped Pakistan in many ways including giving them petroleum on deferred payments. However this apparent rentier situation, unsurprisingly, left the Saudi’s believing that the state of Pakistan is at their beck and call and they were not too pleased when their request went unattended. Witness the frostiness of relations that developed, when Pakistanis publicly deliberated and decided against the sending of troops to Yemen at Saudi request. Recently, the Saudis announced the participation of Pakistan as part of the 34 Muslim countries counter-terrorism coalition about which Pakistanis had no clue.
Given the sensitivities of the Saudi-Pakistan relationship currently Pakistan has said it will join the coalition so long as its sole aim is counter terrorism and is not against any specific country. Under the current scenario when Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads, the coalition as it stands only has Sunni countries excluding Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, we cannot afford the coalition to be ‘sectarianized’.
Pakistan should have gone further and made the argument that if such a Muslim Coalition to exist it should be under the auspices of the OIC and consist of all its members – given that radicalization is a phenomena affecting all Muslim countries from Africa to East Asia.
Meetings with the Saudi Ministers in Pakistan assured them full support for them in any case of territorial breakup but at the same time urged them to reconcile with the Iranians pointing out this is not the time for disputes between Muslim countries.