Pakistan’s balancing act between Iran and Saudi Arabia

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.

 Baluchistan is going to play key role in the success of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor due to its geographical location and Gwadar port

Baluchistan is going to play a key role in the success of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor due to its geographical location and Gwadar port

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.

Pakistan, surprising as it looks, decided to adopt this course despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has, through many years, been one of the most important sources of subsidised oil and numerous covert investments in Pakistan’s military defense. However, as said earlier, the benefits Pakistan seem to be ready to reap in the near future out of CPEC clearly outweigh what it has historically had from the House of Saud.

Pleasing the House of Saud, at this juncture, involves a cost that Pakistan can ill afford. This is due mainly to the eagerness both China and Iran have shown in participating in the “Silk Road” trade.  During Chinese President’s visit to Iran in January, Iran and China signed 17 accords, including cooperation in nuclear energy and a revival of the ancient Silk Road trade route, known in China as One Belt, One Road.

The Chinese state-backed Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that China hoped to improve ties with Iran as part of its sweeping plan to rebuild trade links with Europe and Asia and carve out new markets for its goods.

“China is of course considering its self-interest in strengthening cooperation with Iran, especially at a time when China is in the midst of expending efforts to push forward the One Belt, One Road initiative, Iran is an important fulcrum,” the paper said.

Given the geography of trade thus developing, it does not seem much difficult to calculate that it is Iran that happens to fall on the route of China’s “Silk Road” not Saudi Arabia. Therefore, within the ambit of Pakistan’s participation in this “Silk Road” mega projects, Pakistan can ill-afford to please the House of Saud at the expense of Iran or China.

While Pakistan continues to repeatedly invoke the ‘Muslim Ummah’ mantra for public consumption, crude geo-political calculations rather than religious concerns are actually shaping broader contours of its foreign policy. Pakistan’s imperceptible distance from Saudi Arabia is not an isolated event (read:  last year, Russia replaced Saudi Arabia as the biggest exporter of oil to China); it is deeply rooted in the ‘territorialization’ of Pakistan’s foreign policy, being shaped as it is by larger geo-economic factors as well as the formation of new alliances.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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