Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed “deep concern” about the growing rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia and called on the two nations to peacefully resolve their differences. After meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Islamabad, Sharifdecrued “the escalation of the situation and condemned the burning down of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran,” his office said.”The Prime Minister called for resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of Muslim unity.”
Pakistan borders Iran and has a large Shi’ite minority. It has sought to avoid taking sides to avoid fanning sectarian violence at home.Moreover, Pakistan wants to deepen trade links with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, particularly increasing access to their vast energy resources to fuel its energy-poor economy. It hopes to finish a major gas pipeline to Iran if sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program are lifted. After Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties with Iran following the burning of its embassy in Tehran, Bahrain, Sudan and Kuwait also decided to display their loyalties to the former by the diplomatic isolation of Iran.No state that has any sort of relationship with Saudi Arabia, be it ideological or trading, but which is not part of the ‘Arab world’ — and Pakistan is most definitely not — is in anything other than a quandary in how to deal with the situation. There are high levels of dependence stretching back to the 1920s between the Western nations that sponsored the formation of Saudi Arabia, and themselves. Due to this, collective blind eyes have been turned for decades when it comes to civil rights or the rights — or lack of them — of women in the kingdom. Now with a worsening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran that were ever taut, Pakistan is in the same bind as other clients of Saudi hospitality and largesse. Pakistan has no desire to alienate Saudi Arabia, a country that has bailed it out on numerous occasions, but at the same time the realpolitik of its ever closer alignment with Iran, China and even India mean that a modicum of vagueness and a soupcon of ambiguity are the default position today. Both served us well when it came to involvement in the war in Yemen when we resisted the clarion call from Saudi Arabia to join the fight. They will serve us well again as this toxic pot bubbles, and that is what both the government and the opposition must realise. Furthermore Pakistan has a sizeable presence of the Shia community which is closely integrated in society and is duly represented in state institutions including judiciary, civil service and army. The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has led to protests from the community in a number of cities in Pakistan. The protesters however remained peaceful and orderly. Pakistan has friendly relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It cannot afford to be seen as a partisan in the dispute. Becoming a part of the Saudi-led military alliance set up only weeks before the execution of Sheikh Nimr would be widely interpreted as supporting the Saudi government against Iran. The PML-N administration is required to play a balancing act. It has to discourage a proxy war in Pakistan. What is more, it should play the role of a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia.