Pakistan finds itself between the devil and the deep sea in managing its diplomatic relations with the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. Before the recent Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Pakistan was under the impression that the so-called Islamic Military Alliance’s sole objective was to fight terrorism. But during the Riyadh summit, it became clear that the alliance is a setup against Iran, putting Islamabad in an awkward position vis-à-vis Tehran.
Over the years, Pakistan has succeeded in balancing between Saudi Arabia and Iran and tried its best not to alienate either. On the one hand, Pakistan is dependent on Saudi Arabia for aid and loans to tide over its economic crunch. While on the other hand, Pakistan wants to enhance economic and trade relations with Iran, particularly to tap the economic opportunities post the Iran nuclear deal. But Pakistan’s inclusion in the decidedly-Sunni alliance has put it in a pickle.
Recent Bumps in Pakistan-Saudi Relations
Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia goes back to the 1950s when Pakistan was included in the Middle East defense structure in the shape of SEATO and CENTO respectively. Since then, Pakistan has provided substantial military support to the Saudis, and even had thousands of soldiers stationed in the country in the 1970s and 1980s. But such strategic relationships impose constraints—the broadening of this partnership, such as through sending troops now, could expose Pakistan to further Middle East controversies.
It would be hard for Islamabad to oppose Riyadh because of Pakistan’s financial and energy dependence on the Saudis. At present, Pakistan imports approximately 10,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Saudi Arabia with the annual crude import bill being around $7.5 billion. In 2015, the Saudis provided a $1.5 billion soft loan to Pakistan to help kick start the economy, which many called a “gift” since the loan came with no conditions. However, politics is dictated by realism and operates on reciprocity—nothing is free. Riyadh expected that this “gift” would persuade Pakistan to join the Saudi-led alliance against the Houthis in Yemen. Under pressure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took the matter to the parliament where a resolution was passed against sending troops. Although there wasn’t a strong reaction from Saudi Arabia this time around, the United Arab Emirates(UAE)’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash’s warned that Pakistan would pay a “heavy price” for that decision. Thus, with the constant flux in the Middle East and new dynamics emerging, Pakistan may be forced to pick sides, to its detriment.
Tensions in Pakistan-Iran Relations
After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan last year, Pakistan and Iran relations were on the upswing. Both countries had discussions on a Free Trade Agreement while Iran, after many years, lifted the ban on importing kinnows from Pakistan. Iran also tried to address Pakistan’s concern regarding the India-Iran deal to develop the strategic Chabahar Port with Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Honardoost, saying that Chabahar and Gwadar will act as sister ports. However, things changed abruptly when the Sharif government issued a No Objection Certificate (NoC) in favor of General Raheel Sharif leading the Islamic Military Alliance. Iran expressed its reservations regarding Gen. Raheel’s appointment, with Honardoost stating the coalition “may impact the unity of Islamic countries.”
Tensions were also raised when ten Iranian border guards were killed by Sunni militants on the Pakistan-Iran border on April 26, with militant group Jaish al-Adl claiming responsibility. In the past, Jaish al-Adl has carried out several attacks against Iranian officials and soldiers in the south-eastern region of Sistan-Balochistan, a hotbed of Sunni militants resisting Iran. In 2014, the group had captured a few Iranian soldiers and allegedly took them across the border into Pakistan. After the attacks in April this year, Iran warned Pakistan that it would target safe havens inside Pakistan. The Iran threat came at a time when both Iran and Saudi Arabia were exchanging harsh words.
Pakistan’s Policy Dilemma
Recent statements from Saudi Arabia’s Prince and the Iranian army chief indicate that the Middle East theater is heating up. A blunt exchange erupted between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan. Both threatened each other with pre-emptive military action. The question is: how will Pakistan deal with such a situation? How will Raheel Sharif, now the head of the Islamic Military Alliance, respond when asked by the Saudi leadership to fight against the Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen?
From easy oil payments, grants and financial assistance to remittance of billions of dollars, Pakistan can’t afford to lose Saudi support. More importantly, Pakistan fears that would push Riyadh toward New Delhi. Thus, Pakistan may have to oblige the Saudis. But that would further strain Pakistan-Iran relations. Iran may accelerate funding to Shia outfits in Pakistan or even skirmishes at the border. This may put Pakistan in a position where it finds itself fighting on three frontiers.
Pakistan needs a stable neighborhood, especially for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to succeed. Islamabad will have to deal with the problem of terrorists using its soil and impeding its relations with neighbors, particularly Iran. It may also need to undertake a cost benefit analysis of its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Indications are that Pakistan is sensitive to the diplomatic dilemma it is currently in and a rethink is already underway with the government reportedly having second thoughts about its decision to join the Islamic Military Alliance. Many in the country have called for Gen. Raheel to return. However, even before Pakistan could come out of this diplomatic trap, another challenge erupted, this time between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Saudis’ diplomatic onslaught against Qatar has further complicated the situation for Pakistan. Compared to Iran, Pakistan’s diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar—a 15 year agreement to import gas, large diaspora and defense deals—are very significant. Pakistan needs a strategy that balances its geopolitical ambitions with its economic interests.
Image 1: Anadolu Agency, Getty
Image 2: Anadolu Agency, Getty