Last year, parliament decided against becoming a party to the intensifying Saudi-Iranian conflict in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen. Pakistan has attempted to maintain ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, but this is will be difficult now.
Islamabad appointed Raheel Sharif, the country’s former army chief, as head of the 39-member Saudi-led military coalition. According to those in Riyadh, the Muslim nations’ coalition was formed to fight terrorism in the region. Experts call it primarily an anti-Iran grouping. Tehran is not part of the coalition.
The Associated Press reported that Pakistan’s government officials confirmed that Raheel Sharif had left for Riyadh on Friday to take take on his part in the military alliance, following Islamabad endorsing his leadership officially. The authorities claim that under Sharif’s command, the coalition won’t take any action against Muslim countries.
Sattar Khan, correspondent for Deutsche Welle (DW), wrote in an article that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government “has begun a diplomatic initiative to allay Tehran’s concerns following Raheel Sharif’s controversial appointment. But the efforts are unlikely to yield results.”
Aman Memon, former professor at the Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad, told Khan, “Saudi Arabia and Iran do not trust each other. Also, Riyadh does not want Islamabad to be neutral in the conflict; it wants its full support. In this scenario, how can Pakistan’s diplomatic drive be successful?”
Riyadh formally requested that Pakistan provide planes, warships, and soldiers to support the Arab coalition in fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015, but the country’s lawmakers voted to remain neutral. In a televised speech, PM Sharif later stated that in case of an aggression against Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would take Riyadh’s side.
Khan writes, “Saudi Arabia, which is one of Pakistan’s biggest financers, was unhappy with Islamabad’s reluctance to join the coalition against Yemen’s Shiite rebels. The Arab kingdom has been involved in a two-year-long campaign of airstrikes against Houthi rebels, who have taken over swathes of territory in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighborhood, raising concerns in Riyadh about a potential Shiite uprising in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia also fears that Iran is working to increase its influence in the region.”
Pakistan’s economic dependence on Saudi Arabia is a reason behind Pakistan’s support for Riyadh and Raheel Sharif’s appointment, say experts. Pakistan has troops in Saudi Arabia in an assisting role, they say. However, with Sharif taking charge of the alliance, the troops could be directly involved in the battle.
The U.S. backs the Arab countries’ coalition. While over the past few years Islamabad has drifted away from Washington, analysts say that both countries have many common strategic interests in the region. As well, the Pakistani military heavily depends on the U.S. funding.
Sabir Karbalai, an Islamabad-based analyst, told Khan, “Recently, a US official visited Saudi Arabia and expressed his country’s support to the Saudi alliance. He also lampooned Iran. So the objectives of this grouping are pretty clear.” Karbalai added that Islamabad should have remained neutral in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.
Islamabad and Tehran have had a tense relationship for many years. There are border conflicts, and Tehran is not pleased with Islamabad’s alleged support to various Sunni militant groups.
In an attempt to convince Pakistani authorities to remain neutral in the Middle Eastern conflicts, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Pakistan in March last year. Iran knows the limitations of its ties with Pakistan, but analysts say it wants to maintain “normal” relations with Islamabad.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars said, “Pakistan remains solidly allied with Saudi Arabia, regardless of how intense the outreach may be from Tehran. There are decades of close military cooperation that are not about to be undone.”
Farhan Hanif Siddiqui, an International Relations expert at the Quaid-i-Azam University, believes that Pakistan needs to assure Iran that the Saudi alliance is not against any country. “It is vital for Pakistan to convince Iran that the Saudi-led alliance is only against al Qaeda and the so-called ‘Islamic State.’ If Tehran continues to believe that the Saudi coalition is targeting the regimes in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts will be in vain,” he said.
Pakistan’s’s intelligentsia and civil society are concerned over Raheel Sharif’s role in the Saudi alliance and Islamabad’s direct involvement in the conflict.”Pakistan should not get involved in the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry,” Mosharraf Zaidi, a former USAID consultant and Islamabad-based foreign policy expert, said. “We must not forget that Riyadh and Tehran have their own interests, therefore the Pakistani government, too, should do what is best for the country. It must keep good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, ” he added.
Sunni-Shiite tension will increase, as analysts believe that the Sunni militant groups will feel further emboldened by the fact that the ex-army chief now heads the Saudi-led alliance.
“The sectarian strife in Pakistan has been ongoing for some time now, with militant Islamist groups unleashing terror on the minority Shiite groups in many parts of the country. Most of these outfits, including the Taliban, take inspiration from the hard-line Saudi-Wahabi Islamic ideology,” writes Khan.
Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute, said “For Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalists, the country is already a ‘Sunni Wall’ against Shiite Iran.” He added, “The policy of containing the Shiite influence in the region was seriously affected after the collapse of the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. These events created a power vacuum which is now being increasingly filled by Tehran. Saudi Arabia does not want to see the rise of Iran and will continue to do anything to ensure Sunni dominance.”