Pakistan walks fine line on Saudi-Iran spat

M.K. Bhadrakumar January 9, 2016 2:22 PM (UTC+8)
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Saudi Arabia is making a determined bid to woo Pakistan as an ally in the world of tomorrow. It is an unprecedented initiative because the shoe has been traditionally on the other foot – Pakistan being the supplicant seeking Saudi largesse and Riyadh the imperial benefactor.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud

The change in the alchemy of the relationship is symptomatic of the shift in the tectonic plates of regional politics ensuing out of the broadening US-Iranian engagement. The Saudis feel acutely lonesome and uncertain in a rapidly changing regional and international milieu, while Pakistan on its turn too has choices to make as regards the efficacy of old alignments and the allure of realignments.

It is a measure of the high importance attached by the Saudi regime to get Pakistan on board its regional strategies that Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir paid a hurried 6-hour working visit to Islamabad on Thursday to confer with the all-powerful army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, prime minister Nawaz Sharif and foreign policy advisor (de facto foreign minister) Sartaj Aziz – in that order.

Jubeir made a forceful presentation of Riyadh’s tensions with Tehran, stressing the latter’s interference in what is essentially an internal matter of Saudi Arabia – insofar as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the cleric who has been executed on alleged grounds of involvement in terrorism, was after all a Saudi citizen.

Jubeir’s mission primarily aimed at preparing the ground for a visit by the Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, widely seen as the power behind the throne, to Islamabad on Sunday. All signs are that Salman’s main talking point will be to explore the parameters of the role that Pakistan can play as a participant in the 34-member ‘Islamic anti-terror coalition’ that Riyadh recently mooted.

Salman seems dead serious about his brainchild (which he named ‘Islamic military coalition’) and is apparently fleshing out the details of what the western detractors dismissively named the ‘Islamic NATO’ when he unveiled it on December 15.

Of course, Pakistan is uniquely placed to give a habitation and name to the Islamic military coalition, being a Sunni Muslim country with a highly professional standing army with over half a million active troops and another half million as reserves – and being a nuclear power to boot.

Riyadh can be expected to project that a Saudi-Pakistani fusion enjoys complementarity – Saudis have the money and the high-tech weaponry which Pakistan lacks, while Pakistan can provide the military skills and the foot soldiers.

It could indeed be a mutually beneficial tie-up – that is, if it can be achieved. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry press release on Jubeir’s visit spoke effusively about Saudi-Pak fraternal ties, but kept silent about the substantive issue.

It merely said, “The foreign minister briefed the prime minister on details of the Islamic coalition, announced by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism. The prime minister stated that Pakistan welcomes Saudi Arabia’s initiative and stressed that Pakistan supports all such regional and international efforts to counter terrorism and extremism”.

Pakistan is circumspect about the ‘Islamic NATO’, which becomes a template of the Saudi-Iran regional rivalry, Riyadh’s protestations notwithstanding. And Pakistan has a history of bloody sectarian violence. In fact, Shi’ite organizations in Pakistan held protest marches during Jubeir’s visit.

Aziz held out an assurance in the parliament that Pakistan would work to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with working for ‘unity’ within the Muslim world.

The prominent daily Dawn wrote while taking stock of the debate in the parliament: “Geographic, geopolitical and geoeconomic reasons — along with issues of religious sensitivities — dictate that Pakistan must not take sides in the (Saudi-Iran) rivalry. Of course, this is easier said than done. Pakistan has enjoyed good relations with Saudi Arabia for decades while the kingdom has been a major economic benefactor, which means the Saudis will be expecting Pakistan to return the ‘favours’.

“However… antagonising Tehran would be equally unwise… there has been some speculation over Islamabad possibly downgrading diplomatic ties with Tehran. This would be inadvisable”.

Dawn wrote in a second editorial after Jubeir’s visit that while Riyadh might feel disheartened by Islamabad’s “bland statements”, “it is correct that Pakistan follow this course of moderation”. Interestingly, the daily went on to criticise the Saudi policies of late, especially the recent “mass executions”, and it suggested that Pakistan could try to ensure that Riyadh is not “drifting towards ruinous confrontation”.

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia used to be a holy cow for Pakistani discourses, but that is no longer the case. The heart of the matter is that Pakistan will walk a fine line so as to shore up the accretion of warmth and mutual understanding that has developed in the recent years in its relations with Iran.

Islamabad is only too well aware that “Iran is an important neighbour possibly on the verge of an economic breakout and with influence in Afghanistan”, as Dawn put it.

All the same, the powerful Saudi Deputy Crown Prince is not giving up, as his decision to travel to Islamabad on Sunday signifies. Riyadh needs Islamabad more today than ever before as its Praetorian Guards. The Saudi overture stems from a deep sense of insecurity, with the palpable loosening up of the strategic ties with the US.

If the Riyadh ever needed confirmation that the US is now attempting to strike a balance and adjusting its policies in the Gulf region, instead of putting all eggs in the Saudi basket, it is available now. It cannot be lost on the Saudis that the US now sees the Syrian conflict “fundamentally very similarly” with Russia, to borrow the words of secretary of state John Kerry.

Following the Russian intervention, it emerges that President Bashar al-Assad and his regime is going to be around for a foreseeable future. Meanwhile, there is little Washington can do to rescue Riyadh from what is fast turning into a quagmire in Yemen.

Above all, if the Saudi leadership ever hoped to force the Obama administration to take sides between Riyadh and Tehran, things are not happening that way. Washington’s containment of Iran is becoming history and its current priority is the war against the Islamic State. President Obama’s best advice to the Saudi leadership has been to resolve the tensions with Iran.

Pakistan is, of course, savvy enough to read the tea leaves correctly. The FO readout on Jubeir’s visit says that “Pakistan expressed deep concern at the escalation of the situation (in Saudi-Iran ties)… The Prime Minister called for resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of the Muslim unity in this challenging time”.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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