Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif visited Riyadh and Tehran earlier this week in a bid to ease tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The move is unusual in many ways, including in the choreography of the often competitive media offices of the prime minister and the army chief, which have emphasized the civil-military unity animating the trip.
Atmospherics aside, there is debate as to what sparked the visit of Pakistan’s top two power brokers and whether they can actually help bring down the temperature in the simmering Persian Gulf.
Pakistani officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, are cautious in their assessments of their ability to facilitate Iran-Saudi Arabia dialogue. But they do see glimmers of hope.
Within the Pakistani leadership, there appears to be a broad consensus that reaching out to both Riyadh and Tehran was a matter of urgency—and not because of an imminent threat to Pakistan, which is more secure than it has been for a decade, but out of fears of a tailspinning Middle East and the externalities of sectarian conflict and civil war.
A Mission to Save the Region
While GEO News, Pakistan’s top news channel, reported that Pakistan was requested by Saudi Arabia to play the role of interlocutor with Iran, most sources indicate that the Pakistani initiative is unilateral and has been mulled over the past month.
The need for Iran-Saudi rapprochement was seen with greater urgency by Pakistani power brokers after a flurry of regional developments. In just the last few months Riyadh announced the creation of a thirty-four-member Islamic anti-terror coalition, the Shi’a cleric Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr was executed by Saudi Arabia, the Saudi embassy was subsequently attacked in Tehran, and the United States and European Union lifted major nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has sought to make clear to domestic and foreign observers that it has not and will not take sides in the feud between the two Muslim countries. Islamabad was caught unawares by its inclusion in Riyadh’s anti-terror coalition—a coalition that Tehran is not part of and sees itself as its real target. Visits by Deputy Crown Minister Muhammad bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in early January furthered speculation as to what Pakistan’s actual role is in the Iran-Saudi cold war, despite the government’s repeated pronouncements of non-alignment.
This uncertainty, first and foremost, has ramifications at home. Pakistan is a Sunni-majority country. But upwards of twenty percent of its population is Shia. Since 1979, Pakistan has been afflicted by Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, fueled in part by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The threat of sectarian conflict endures, though sectarian violence has declined since 2013, alongside a precipitous drop in terrorism overall. Nonetheless, sectarian agitators are aplenty and have been active in recent weeks. Prominent Tehran-backed Shia groups have protested against the al-Nimr execution. And a Saudi-backed segment within Pakistan’s Sunni community has been supporting the execution of the Shia cleric.
In a sign of how sensitively Islamabad views the country’s sectarian divide, its electronic media regulatory authority reprimanded a talk show host for encouraging Pakistan to take Saudi Arabia’s side against Iran. It also issued guidelines on how to report on the Iran-Saudi tensions.
Pakistan’s leaders also felt it was imperative to unambiguously convey their collective stand on the regional divide to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Given the army’s powerful role in Pakistan, and its strategic autonomy even in times of civilian rule, foreign actors are often unclear as to whom exactly is in control. At times, foreign officials even attempt to leverage Pakistan’s civil-military divide: when they fail to get what they want from the civilians, they often turn to the military, and vice versa.
The recent Pakistani mission, however, is more than a messaging exercise. Both Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership, and a broad segment of its politicos and talking heads, view Iran-Saudi rapprochement as an urgent need. They fear a spillover of the sectarian conflict and a return to Pakistan being an Iran-Saudi Arabia battleground.
While a reigniting of sectarian tensions in Pakistan would not constitute an existential threat, it would jeopardize Pakistan’s efforts to consolidate counterinsurgency and counterterrorism gains made nationwide over the past two years.
Between Opportunity and Risk
Pakistan sees a mix of peril and promise in the Persian Gulf. It keenly desires peace and security for Saudi Arabia, a reliable and trusted ally whose stability directly impacts Pakistan’s. After all, Saudi Arabia is home to over two million Pakistani expatriates and is Pakistan’s single largest source of remittances . In times of difficulty, Saudi Arabia has come to Pakistan’s aid—for example, by providing oil on deferred payment when Islamabad was hit by U.S. sanctions after conducting nuclear tests in 1998. A severe, existential crisis in Saudi Arabia would shock the Pakistani economy and result in the potential loss of a strategic security partner. From the perspective of an ally, Islamabad sees Riyadh’s escalating conflict with Tehran as injurious to Saudi interests.