Spearhead Analysis – 08.04.2016
Two recent visits have sparked interest and speculation in the enduring Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relationship. The first was President Rouhani of Iran’s visit to Pakistan and the second was Prime Minister Modi of India’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The reasons for this interest and speculations is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are perceived as locked in a sectarian struggle not just in the Middle East but world-wide. Iran backs the Houthis in Yemen, President Assad in Syria, the Shiite faction in Iraq and is a part of the Russian sponsored pro Assad and anti IS ‘coalition’. Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthis in Yemen, opposes Assad in Syria, is a long standing US ally and has recently announced a 34 nation coalition against ‘terrorism’ that was showcased in early March in a 21 nation joint military exercise—Northern Thunder and generally seen as a signal to Iran.
Pakistan tactfully declined a Saudi request to be part of the Saudi sponsored offensive in Yemen against the Houthis. The battle hardened and top rated Pakistan military would have been a decisive factor for the Saudis. The war in Yemen is heading for a cease fire in the second week of April followed by talks in Kuwait to bring the conflict to an end. Saudi Arabia sees this as a vindication of its decision because in its perception the Iranians have not been allowed into Yemen. This is precisely the reason Pakistan opted out of taking sides in Yemen. Another reason could have been Pakistan’s negative assessment of the possible outcome of the conflict and its humanitarian consequences. Pakistan tempered its response with full assurance of joining in the defence of the Kingdom should its territory be threatened—an unlikely prospect.
Pakistan did participate in the Northern Thunder event and was at pains to state that the Saudi sponsored and led coalition was against the common threat of terrorism and not against any particular country. This was meant to allay Iranian fears and any-Pakistan-Iran misunderstanding. Once again Pakistan signaled its intention of not taking sides in any Saudi-Iran confrontation. Pakistan’s population is 22% Shia but Pakistan has no Shia-Sunni conflict except in instances of extremist and externally sponsored incidents of violence.
President Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan was a success and both countries not only confirmed their brotherly relations but declared intent to boost trade ties and energy flows as well cooperate in the management of their long land border in Baluchistan. Much has been read into the public disclosure of an Indian spy who entered from Iran and had been based in the Chahbahar port area of Iran—an area of interest for India. Pakistan has always maintained that India covertly undermines Pakistan and the capture of the Indian spy and later an Afghan spy confirmed what had long been alleged. Iran and Pakistan have handled the fallout diplomatically after some fumbling but the Iran-Pakistan relationship remains intact awaiting rapid up gradation. Iran cannot afford to have unrest in its Seistan-Baluchistan province just as Pakistan is sensitive to events in its Baluchistan province.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia after his visit to the UAE is being as some kind of devious way of circumventing or sidelining Pakistan. Much is being made of the reception accorded to Mr. Modi in spite of his anti-Muslim and the Kingdoms highest honor bestowed on him. Pakistan Army Chiefs visiting the Kingdom are also honored the same way. Mr. Modi has visited Saudi Arabia to further India economic interests and his visit has been successful. There is going to be zero impact on Pakistan-Saudi or Pakistan-UAE relations. Pakistan must, however, pursue its own interests forcefully and energetically using all its means.
The Pakistan-Saudi relationship has the common denominator of an alliance with the US. There are however other more compelling factors like the strong religious bonds that unite the two countries and Saudi reliance on the enduring ties with Pakistan’s military. Saudi Arabia has never refused to come to Pakistan’s rescue with economic assistance and Pakistanis are not likely to forget that. Both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will maintain their relationship at all costs. Pakistan will not allow these ties to negatively influence its relationship with its neighbor Iran and Saudi Arabia understands Pakistan’s constraints and compulsions. Pakistan also seeks a normalized relationship with India and once again suggested dialogue to refocus on its long standing proposal of a bilateral Strategic Restraint Regime. Pakistan’s foreign policy directions are clear but it is not about to roll over and let others walk over it under any circumstances.
(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual)