Securing Pakistan’s Interest amid Saudi-Iran Rivalry

By Ramsha Nadeem

May 2019 saw a new escalation in the ever-heated relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as Houthi rebels conducted attacks against oil tankers and then oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. The group, having strong support from Iran, took responsibility for the attack on twitter and called them a response to Saudi “genocide” in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and its allies, the US and UAE, immediately condemned Iran for sabotaging peace in the region while Iranian leadership insisted of having no role in the attacks. Later in June, two commercial tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Again, the US administration and the Saudi government blamed Iran for the attack while Iran continued its stance of not being involved in any such attacks.

Amid the rising tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has been continuously reassuring its neutral stance on any conflict in the Middle East. Yet given the growing intensity in the relationship and the poor economic situation in the country, it is by no means an easy situation for Pakistan to choose one side. The diplomatic and political pressure from both sides is bringing Pakistan’s long-run neutrality under question.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: A Friend in Need

Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia runs deep as both countries enjoy strategic and defense cooperation. In May, the Kingdom also announced a $3.2 billion deferred oil and gas payment package for energy-strapped Islamabad. With Saudi investment necessary for boosting our economy, it will not be easy to stay neutral in the face of a request for support from Riyadh. Hence, when Saudi Arabia recently called an OIC emergency summit meeting to contain Iran, Pakistan could not decline. Pakistan’s attendance at the meeting indicates that it condemns these attacks. While the official stance remained that Pakistan is keen to extend its full support for peace in the Middle East and for the unity of Muslim Ummah, it seems unlikely that it will be able to keep its neutrality in the near future.

Pakistan and Iran: Bittersweet relation

With a large Shia population of its own and strained relations with two neighboring countries – India and Afghanistan – Pakistan is keen to have good relationship with Iran. Yet, cross-border terrorism has been a major setback. Recently, a terrorist attack in Ormara was suspected to be planned by non-state actors in Iran. Iran, on the other hand, had complained of Pakistani terrorists conducting attacks on border security forces. To resolve this issue and to discuss Pakistan’s position in the aftermath of attacks on oil facilities, Iranian Foreign Minister visited Pakistan in May. He ensured that Tehran seeks stronger ties with Islamabad and developing strong relations with immediate neighbors is the priority of Iranian foreign policy. He proposed to establish a link between Chabahar and Gwadar. This link will connect Pakistan with a railroad system from Iran to the North Corridor through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey. However, considering the current conflict, all of these plans and proposals remain a pipe dream.

A Tough decision for Pakistan

For a developing country like Pakistan, the current developments in Middle East are extremely challenging both economically and diplomatically. In view of the current attacks on oil facilities, it is nowhere near possible that the Iran-Saudi rivalry is going to end anytime soon. With Iran under sanctions and stuck in a hard politico-economic situation, it is likely to seek Pakistan’s support. Yet Pakistan, having its own problems, cannot keep its policies neutral towards Iran anymore. Whereas, in the case of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is already providing its support in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), while receiving multi-billion dollars financial benefits from Saudi Arabia. The relations with Saudi Arabia are much better and strong. It clearly signals the side Pakistan is going to take in the future.