Tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran have placed Pakistan in a precarious position during at a time when there is little room for error in strategic discourse. Our unique geostrategic location combined with our responsibility of having the most powerful Muslim military immediately draws us into many regional and even global conflicts. Our historic relations with Saudi and Iran, two Muslim countries, also affects our interests. Unfortunately, just when rational and effectively diplomacy is called for, what our political and military leaders are delivering is anything but. Rather what we are seeing are the same old games being played.
Our relations with Iran have not always been so difficult. Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan’s sovereignty in 1947, and Pakistan supported Iran during that country’s war with Iraq during the 1980s, drawing the anger of the United States. In recent years, however, relations have become increasingly strained due to the unchecked growth of anti-Shia militancy taking root in Pakistan and repeated incidents of cross-border attacks by Pakistani militants which the Foreign Office has responded to with denial instead of taking appropriate action. Bilateral relations have warmed in recent months, though, as plans for the Iran-Pakistan pipeline have progressed, promising benefits for both countries.
Relations with Saudi Arabia have historically been much closer and stronger than with Iran, having been termed as our “most important bilateral partnership”. We have had a long and close relationship that has included military and economic partnerships that span trade, education, real estate, tourism, information technology, communications and agriculture. With such cordial and brotherly relations, last year’s public rejection of Saudi Arabia’s request to join a coalition in Yemen took many by surprise.
As usual, though, things appear to be more complicated than they seem. Some of Saudi Arabia’s most vocal critics quickly changed their tune and began offering some support for the idea. This month, Saudi Foreign Minister and Defence Minister arrived in Pakistan turning up the heat considerably. The Saudi leaders are coming after Pakistan once again embarrassed the Kingdom by announcing surprise at being included in the 34-Nation Muslim Military Alliance. Gen Raheel then announced that Pakistan will respond to any threat against Saudi Arabia, but then it was clarified that Pakistan will not actually provide any troops to help the alliance.
Are we once again playing the double game of saying one thing and doing another? Pakistan should not be forced to choose sides in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s affairs. We have important strategic relations with both countries, and becoming entangled in a conflict with sectarian undertones would only add a further element of destabilisation that is unneeded at home. The only thing worse than choosing sides, perhaps, is trying to play games that damage our relations with not only one but both countries by behaving in a way that shows us as an untrustworthy partner. The best course of action for Pakistan is to remain truly neutral and work to defuse the dangerous stand off between our two allies. This will only be possible if we are honest and transparent in our dealings, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable.