Pakistan: Balancing Between Iran And Saudi Arabia – The Shah, Ayatollahs, And Kings

Executive Summary: Notwithstanding its many internal contradictions, Pakistan remains a key actor in the Middle East and South Asia. For example, the so-called ‘Islamic Alliance’ would have already been declared dead on arrival if Pakistan had refused to join, while the Qatar crisis would have been much more severe if Pakistan had jumped on the Saudi Arabian bandwagon. Similarly, Saudi Arabia could have perhaps avoided its blunder in Yemen if Pakistan had agreed to send troops to fight in Yemen. Yet, the history of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan since the early 1970s demonstrates that its policymakers of all hues have mastered the art of balancing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and not getting trapped in intra-Arab conflicts. For Pakistan, Iran dominated the agenda in the 1950s and 1960s while the Shah was trying to police the region and, in doing so, allayed Pakistan’s existential concerns to a significant degree. This gradually changed after the oil crisis and ensuing economic boom in the Gulf after 1973 as Pakistani workers and troops poured into the Gulf. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took advantage of the interest the Saudis and Iranians shared in having a powerful Pakistan to stand with them against the Soviets and reaped economic, military and political benefit from all sides along the way. He happily called the Gulf ‘the Persian Gulf’ because Iran was a neighbor while the Saudis were far distant, but all the while continued paying lip service to the Saudis’ claim to leadership in the Muslim world, adding useful Islamic color to Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Even after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which put Saudi Arabia and Iran at odds to a certain degree, with Iran beginning to use the Shia card against Pakistan, the country continued to play both sides on different issues. President Zia gleefully took Saudi money to bankroll the Afghan jihad and dispatched troops to the Gulf to soothe Arab regimes’ security concerns. Yet, it supported Iran militarily in its war against Iraq, despite being wary about the revolutionary regime’s intentions. Pakistan’s post-Zia policy toward Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait too showed that Pakistan would take some steps, but not go all the way, to satisfy Saudi demands. While the Nawaz Sharif government supported the coalition operation to drive Iraq out of Kuwait despite popular opposition, as well as sending additional troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the royal family, Pakistani troops never saw the battlefield.

Frictions over different Pakistani, Saudi, American, Indian, and Iranian expectations and designs for the fate of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal caused Pakistan many problems. With contradictory policies over Afghanistan and a different picture emerging on the ground with the rise of Taliban, sectarianism found a ready playground in Pakistan, where Shia Muslims constitute 15–20 percent of the entire population. Militants began attacking Pakistani Shiite citizens in the 1990s. They killed Shiite officials including diplomats, engineers, and cadets in the years 1997–1998. Because Pakistan was one of the three countries (the others were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) that recognized the Taliban regime in Kabul after 1996, the regime’s attacks against Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan in 1998 further soured relations. While its interests clashed with Iran to a strong degree throughout the 1990s, Pakistan still did not take an anti-Iranian stance after the 9/11 attacks, which put enormous pressure on Iran. As Iran was put under sanctions due to its nuclear program and a war seemed imminent, Pakistan took a firm stance against any attack on Iranian soil for fear of a backlash from its Shia citizens.

The ‘Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism’ was announced by Saudi Arabia in the closing days of 2015. Eventually comprising 41 Muslim-majority nations, the alliance vowed to protect Muslims against terrorist organizations, seemingly with the Syrian civil war in its sights. After deciding in April 2015 against contributing Pakistani troops to the Saudi assault on Yemen, Pakistan this time quietly joined the alliance. Yet still, Pakistan has so far done all it can to stay away from giving the impression that the alliance is an anti-Iranian grouping. It needs to be noted that while trying to cajole Pakistan into an undeclared front against Iran, Saudi Arabia was not even able to persuade Pakistan to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus. On the issue of Syria, too, Pakistan has been treading very carefully. The Sharif government kept their ambassador in Damascus, apart from a short period when it was no longer safe to keep him there, a policy described as “positive neutrality” and celebrated by the Syrian Ambassador to Islamabad.

Pakistani policymakers, in refusing to pick a side in either the intra-Arab or Iranian-Saudi confrontations, are expressing their constant fear of domestic sectarian infighting. The armed forces, where it is considered best etiquette that officers’ sects should not matter or be discussed, are especially concerned because such infighting would put their own unity at stake. Economic considerations that force Pakistan to remain cautious should also be kept in mind: Pakistan faces acute practical problems in ensuring uninterrupted access to gas and oil. Pakistan satisfies its energy needs by importing oil and natural gas from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iran (plus small amounts from other countries). Remittances that Pakistani workers in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states send back home are the other reason why Pakistan would prefer to avoid any drastic policy moves regarding the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. These remittances, which are being sent back in growing amounts with an equivalent impact on the Pakistani economy, mean that Pakistan must be careful not to provoke the deportation of its citizens over a political fight abroad. For decades, all these interlocking interests and domestic and external limitations have made balance and extreme caution in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran and its attitude towards intra-Arab conflicts a necessity, not a choice.

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