April issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

Nawaz Sharif is used to a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia, having spent perhaps the toughest days of his political career exiled in the Kingdom. But even he must have been surprised to see Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz at the airport to receive him when he landed in Riyadh for a trip that the entire region was monitoring closely.

Those crowing about Sharif’s ‘elevated’ status should, however, realise that he was not singled out for such an honour and there is usually a price for everything.

Concerned about the manoeuvres of the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the ostensible Iranian support for them, it is evident that King Salman was seeking Pakistani assurances — and troops — to counter “Iranian aggression in the Arab world,” with the deadline for the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear project fast approaching. Riyadh wants Pakistan to join Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Arab allies against Iran, with a focus on the apparent Shia-Sunni proxy war going on in Yemen.

“It was not just Nawaz Sharif; the new ‘khadim-e-hariman sharifan’ accorded the same welcome to Turkish President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan. However, I’m not too sure about how Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el- Sisi fared in this regard,” says Shahab Jafry, executive editor and Middle East correspondent of the English daily, Pakistan Today. “Riyadh regards these gentlemen, especially the first two, as partners in keeping the Sunni order dominant.”

Jafry continues, “That’s not been too hard, because the Middle East’s traditional anti-Sunni axis (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) is also the principal anti-Israeli alliance. So the equation with the West has been pretty straightforward so far. But recently things have changed with the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Clearly, the joint anti-ISIS fight is also a consideration. That is why the new Saudi king has been trying to cajole Sunni leaders to come on board.”

Former caretaker finance minister Salman Shah believes that Pakistan’s role in the Islamic world should be to bridge, not be party to fostering differences within the Ummah.

“Our role in the Islamic world should be to eradicate the differences that have crept in, instead of taking sides,” says Shah. “The Islamic world, as we all know, has been marred by sectarian issues and the division along those lines has already caused a lot of trouble. If Pakistan has a good relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, it will then be able to play that cementing role and help the Islamic world overcome its differences.”

Former foreign minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Kasuri, agrees.

“Pakistan has a lot of cultural commonalities with Iran, and simultaneously, religious affiliation with Saudi Arabia. So the wise course for Pakistan, since 1947, has been to try and play a part in uniting Iran and Saudi Arabia. I was very clear about that when I was foreign minister,” he says.

“We can and should play a role in bringing them together — we should not be partisan,” he adds.

The point is that, given the US$ 1.5 billion gifted to Pakistan last year, Pakistan may find it hard to refuse Saudi Arabia which is now demanding partisanship in the region’s sectarian conflicts.

“If we are going ahead with a security arrangement with Saudi Arabia, it should deal with the internal security of that country,” says Shah, adding that “we should have nothing to do with Saudi Arabia’s external relations with other countries. In simple words, our security deal with Saudi Arabia should safeguard the Kingdom from the likes of ISIS and other similar terrorist organisations. And we should provide them assistance on that particular front — but that’s it.”

Kasuri contends that if Saudi Arabia has legitimate security concerns that don’t have a sectarian subplot, Pakistan should provide support.

“If Saudi Arabia demands an alignment of Shia Islam or Sunni Islam, we need to keep out of it. But if the Kingdom has legitimate security threats from the likes of ISIS, we could provide them  help, considering the traditional ties, and our defence and intelligence links,” he says.

Kasuri continues, “When Saudi security is threatened, as was the case when Saddam Hussain attacked Kuwait, Pakistan can play a legitimate role. But if there’s a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran come face-to-face — something that did happen when I was at the helm of Pakistan’s foreign policy — it’s best to not get involved in such conflicts. We kept Pakistan out of sectarian partisanship at a time when the then Pakistani president was assured by certain powers that he could play the role of a great statesman internationally.”

“Iran’s security should be as important for us as that of Saudi Arabia. And we should help both of them wherever we can,” adds Shah.

All that notwithstanding, while partisanship is clearly not in Pakistan’s interest, Islamabad’s traditional ties with Riyadh, and the Sharifs’ gratitude towards the Kingdom apparently compelled Pakistan to agree to Saudi demands.

Says Jafry, “The ‘traditional partnership’ with Saudi Arabia is basically about cheap oil and the large job market for Pakistani labour. But Iran can fill all those gaps. It’s a large oil producer as well. Therefore, if the regional equation shifts from Saudi Arabia to Iran in the medium term, Pakistan should posture to take advantage rather than be left clinging to the decaying Saudi regime.”

Kasuri, however, advises more prudence.

“Pakistan has had positive ties with Saudi Arabia since 1947, and hence the relationship should be handled with care, which is what I tried to do when I was the foreign minister,” he says.

“Turkey and Saudi Arabia, do not get along with Iran. There is a lot of history behind the animosity that goes all the way back to the 7th century. And all three countries are important to us. At one point there were around 1.5 million Pakistani immigrants in Saudi Arabia, so we have a lot of linkages,” he continues.

The former foreign minister says that we must also not ignore the religious angle in Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“With Mecca and Medina there, and the historical affiliation of Pakistanis with Saudi Arabia, the bilateral relationship with the Saudi Kingdom is a lot more than just about oil, economy or security,” he contends.

But while redrawing the foreign policy rule-book in favour of Iran might not be on the cards, the economic benefits of bolstering ties with Tehran are particularly tempting now that the US looks set to lift its sanctions on Iran as well. And with the US drawing closer to Iran, one wonders if Pakistan could actually profit more from Iran, without compromising its ties with Saudi Arabia?

“I don’t think it makes too much sense to visibly tilt towards Saudi Arabia,” says Jafry. “Iran is a next-door neighbour, and with the thaw with the Americans, sanctions are bound to be diluted somewhat,” he adds.

Shah believes that Islamabad should avoid tilting towards either Tehran or Riyadh, considering it can muster financial benefits from both.

“Our economic ties aren’t solely with Saudi Arabia; we have financial ties with Iran as well. Trade, investment, tourism… these things are bolstered within the region, and with Iran being in the immediate neighbourhood, the significance of a strong financial relationship with Iran is self-evident,” he says.

In fact, the former advisor to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz believes that Pakistan should go “full blast” when it comes to financial ties with Iran.

“We should go full blast. Be it the energy sector — i.e. oil and gas — power, infrastructural agreements or trade. We can have trade ties worth US$ 10 billion with Iran. An integral part of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the region should focus on maximising trade and financial cooperation,” Shah says.

“The Middle East and West Asia are the only regions in the world where you don’t have a regional trading block, despite the huge potential for this. Whether it is Central Asia, West Asia or the Middle East, this whole area should have regional trade, investment, travel and peace,” he adds.

An integral part of regional cooperation has been to tie various countries in an energy-sharing mechanism, which in turn would link the prosperity of every individual state to regional security. Many analysts have touted a regional pipeline as the answer to Pakistan’s energy predicament, economic problems and security concerns. Spearheading potential pipeline solutions is of course the much-procrastinated Iran-Pakistan pipeline.

“With the US sanctions potentially diluted, it would be a good time for Pakistan to revive the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. Of course, that looks less likely now that Nawaz has tipped the balance in favour of Riyadh,” maintains Jafry.

Shah says that the issue of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline is not just based on US sanctions. He believes that even without relying on a US-Iran thaw, the pipeline issue could be resolved.

“The only issue is the pricing,” says Shah. “Wherever we get a better and transparent price, we should go for it. Unfortunately, the Iran-Pakistan pipeline has also become a victim of domestic politics, with the previous government signing a deal that wasn’t as transparent as it should have been,” he adds.

So with it becoming increasingly evident that it is in Pakistan’s best interests to maintain healthy ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, can Pakistan actually play the role that many have envisioned for it? That of a unifying force within the Islamic world that is being increasingly torn apart by sectarianism.

“Clearly not all Saudi demands have been met,” says Jafry. “But remember, there have been several contradictions between N-League leaders’ statements and those issued by the foreign office. The feeling is that certain quarters have tried to limit Nawaz’s advances towards the Saudis, but there’s no way of knowing the details at present. So it’s still premature to call this one,” he adds.

Kasuri believes that Pakistan can still play the role of a ‘unifier’ amid sectarian turmoil in the Muslim world. “If Pakistan can set its house in order, we can play an important role in curbing the menace that has plagued the entire world: ISIS. Sunni-Shia sectarianism is another thing that we can help counter,” he says.

“If Pakistan were better situated and more stable, it could have played a truly vital role today — of focusing on the common ground among all Muslims, regardless of the sectarian divides. We should try and bridge differences between Shias and Sunnis,” he adds.

Considering the Shia killings in Pakistan and the brewing sectarianism, Kasuri warns against a potential backlash in Pakistan if the nation joins an alliance that is sectarian in nature.

“Don’t we have enough security issues owing to the terrible sectarianism that is now rife in Pakistan? So why should we become part of any sectarian alliance? That can only have a dire fallout in Pakistan,” he exclaims.

Daunting as that prospect may be, Pakistan’s leadership is clearly hearkening to the call of its Saudi benefactors — never mind the cost to Pakistan.


This article was originally published in Newsline’s April 2015 issue.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.