• Sunday 9th August 2020

Pakistan’s balancing act between Iran and Saudi Arabia BY SALMAN RAFI

Were such a situation to occur, it would only add fuel to the already extremely ‘fiery’ Baluchistan and damage CPEC too.Recent twists in Pakistan’s foreign policy to maintain a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran reflect the country’s historical obsession with acting as the leader of the ‘Muslim Ummah’ and also the on-going sectarian tussle, roots of which can be traced to both the Mid-Eastern states, within the country.

On the one hand, Pakistan cannot afford to distance itself too much from Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, it can no longer afford to ‘annoy’ a resurgent Iran due potentially to the problems it can stir in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s most restive province. Baluchistan is going to play a central role in the success of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) due to its geographical location and the all-important Gwadar port.

All these factors combined to push the Pakistani leadership, both civil and military, to play a role in defusing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the way this role was projected publicly did, once again, prove how Pakistan continues to deploy, despite years of bad experience, religious idiom in purely geo-political matters.

However, this deployment of religious idiom was, as it has always been, only meant for public consumption and to conceal the underlying imperatives of urgent visits to both countries.

Fortunately enough, CPEC has put Pakistan’s top leadership on the same page, as far as the country’s economic development in the wake of the corridor is concerned. It is, as is widely believed in the official and un-official diplomatic circles of Pakistan, the imperative of reaping full benefits from China’s “Silk Road” projects that has been keeping Pakistan from engaging too much in the House of Saud’s various wars.

Pakistan, therefore, desperately needs, as an official from Pakistan’s foreign ministry told me on the condition of anonymity, peace at home. It cannot hope to fully harness the CPEC if it has to continue to fight the so-called ‘Pakistani-Taliban’, the foreign-funded sectarian outfits and the Baluch nationalist-militant groups simultaneously.

Of the three chief sources of security problems, Pakistan has recently been quite vocal about the foreign-funded sectarianism. According to interior ministry sources, 147 seminaries/madrassas in Punjab, 95 in Gilgit Baltistan, 30 in Baluchistan, and 12 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one in Sindh are getting the funding. The funding and other support is being provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey and Iraq. In Punjab, 122 schools are Saudi-backed and 25 get Iranian funding. Saudi money funds most madrassas in Baluchistan and Peshawar while Iranian money funds most in Gilgit Baltistan in the north.

As is evident, most of the funding, about 75% to 80%, comes from “Sunni Arab” Gulf countries. It is due mainly to the fact that Pakistan itself is predominantly a “Sunni” majority country. And, it is perhaps for this very reason that Pakistan has to maintain a very calculated distance from Saudi Arabia.

However, notwithstanding Pakistan’s sectarian affinity with the House of Saud, it is highly unlikely that ‘sectarian factor’ would determine the actual course of Pakistan’s foreign policy. An alliance with Iran, on the other hand, can reap two immediate benefits. Not only would it help neutralize the flow of sectarian funds from Iran into Pakistan’s north, but also enable Pakistan to better negotiate the ethno-national movement in the West i.e., Baluchistan, without having to tackle any Iran-backed upsurge. Were such a situation to occur, it would only add fuel to the already extremely ‘fiery’ Baluchistan and damage CPEC too.

Therefore, tilt towards Tehran and imperceptible distance from Riyadh is deeply rooted in Pakistan’s orientation as the hub of regional trade to and from Southeast Asia to West Asia/Middle East. It is for this very reason that Pakistan has, so far, not extended any support, other than a few solidarity statements, to the House of Saud’s various wars.

For instance, in April 2015, when Riyadh sought Islamabad’s military assistance in its newly launched war in Yemen, Saudi officials went home empty-handed. However, this time, Jubeir and bin Salman heard two different messages from Islamabad. The head of the Pakistani military, General Raheel Sharif, vowed a “strong response” to any threat to Saudi security. The other message was from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His emphasis was on a potential role for Pakistan as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, diplomatically sidestepping the burden of having to pick sides.

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