Relations between Riyadh and Tehran have been tense ever since the 1979 Revolution, representing the unfortunate Shia-Sunni divide among the Muslims. The current tension started when the Saudis executed prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqar al Nimr on charges of inciting terrorism. Evoking a very strong reaction from the Iranians, the situation was further exacerbated by the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran being ransacked, Saudi Arabia retaliated by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran and halting air traffic and commercial links, duly followed in varying degrees by its Gulf allies. On its part Iran restricted its citizens from going to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah.
With the situation going from bad to worse, a series of high profile Saudi visitors have visited Pakistan recently, ostensibly to persuade Pakistan to provide physical support in the regional discord. The Saudi Assistant Defence Minister was followed by the Foreign Minister, Adel bin Ahmad Al-Jubeir, thereafter the all-powerful Defence Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman (son of the Saudi King) arrived. We have been through this before in March last year when Saudi Arabia wanted Pakistan to commit its troops in its fight against the Houthis rebels in Yemen, and had unilaterally announced Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led II-nation coalition (labelled as the Sunni Coalition) and we had politely refused. Great displeasure was expressed by the Saudis, however the greater severe approbation was heaped on us by our very close friends, the UAE. For us this was a shock!
Having excellent relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan must tread carefully. For many reason we cannot afford to alienate either. Moreover we need help from both countries to support a political situation in Afghanistan. While our rulers may be personally beholden to the Saudi rulers for many reasons, Iran also shares an extensive and contiguous border with us, why should we open another front to go with the ones we are already contending with? Moreover pending sanctions being completely lifted, given our energy shortage the gas pipeline project is critical.
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen was meant to be a short sharp affair, the protracted and devastating conflict has intensified greatly. With no end in sight, it has become a major problem for the Saudis and those nations actually participating in operations. Moreover Saudi Army bases on its southern border have subjected to regular attacks from Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition was not prepared for the number of body bags starting to come home. The rising number of casualties has led to strong rumors about employing of hundreds of Colombian Panamanian, Chilean, Australian, etc mercenaries, it has added a volatile new element in the complex war. Hundreds of Sudanese nationals having military experience have also been recruited to fight in Yemen. The greatest beneficiary of Saudi and UAE benevolence, over US$ 30 billion given over the last 2 years alone and at least US$ 25 billion debt forgiven, Egypt has dragged its feet in sending ground troops. It remembers its horrible experience in the 1960s when it suffered over 55000 dead and more than 100,000 injured in 4-5 years fighting the Houthis. Its role in Yemen consists a naval deployment in the Red Sea to prevent Bab El-Mandab Straits from falling under Houthi control.
Provided that its aim is counter-terrorism and is not against any specific country, the sensitivities of the very special nature of the Saudi-Pakistan relations required Pakistan to confirm that it will join the coalition. The government has reiterated Pakistan would not send any combat troops to Saudi Arabia, “boots on the ground” will give the perception that Pakistan is engaged in an anti-Shia agenda. The pro-Saudi and pro-Iranian demonstrations are not helping, the danger of internal sectarian strife is therefore rife. Engaged in a war of its own against terrorism and radicalization, Pakistan has paid a heavy price in thousands of soldiers being martyred, many more thousands of civilians. It cannot afford to become part of any war outside its borders. Pakistan’s role must thus remain restricted to intelligence-sharing, counterterrorism training and other such activities in the coalition. While there can be no vacillation about our commitment to defend the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, our national interest must take precedence over everything else.
Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif must be lauded for suggesting a diplomatic solution during his meeting with Prince Salman and offering Pakistan’s services to work for reconciliation. Reiterated by Gen Raheel Shareef, COAS Pakistan Army, he assured the Saudis that any threat to the Kingdom’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan. Mian Nawaz Sharif reminded Prince Salman of the promotion of brotherhood among “Organisation of Islamic Cooperation” (OIC) members, which includes both Iran and Saudi Arabia. While exhibiting its concern for regional peace and since radicalization and terrorism affects all Muslim countries from Africa to East Asia. Pakistan could have argued that such a Muslim Coalition already exists but under the auspices of the OIC.
While maintaining an impartial status, Pakistan can thus play an effective part in countering the sectarian and political regional discord that is now raising its ugly head. Geographic, geopolitical and geo-economic reasons as well as issues of religious sensitivities require Pakistan to help Riyadh battle terrorism but without any sectarian underpinnings, and strictly only within the Saudi territory, while playing the role of peacemaker. One sincerely hopes that Saudi Arabia and its other coalition allies (particularly UAE) will be pragmatic enough to recognize Pakistan’s predicament. Pakistan is between a rock and a hard place, only fools rush in where angels fear to tread!
The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org