Saudi Arabia and Iran are beginning a competition for influence with the new government led by Imran Khan in Pakistan. Both have big stakes involved. The Saudi position is much weakened by the war in Yemen, which is unpopular in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s position is crucially important to both Riyadh and Tehran. Pakistan is the second-most populous country in the Muslim world and the only Muslim state with a nuclear arsenal. Over 1.5 million Pakistanis live in the kingdom. Pakistan and Iran share a 900-kilometer (559-mile) border in Baluchistan. Pakistan’s population includes a significant Shiite minority, perhaps as much as 30% of the country. In the Saudi-Iranian competition for influence in the Islamic world, Pakistan is crucial.
Prime Minister Khan says he wants Pakistan to play a “positive and constructive role” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He has spoken by phone with the leadership in both countries since his election and is expected to travel to both early in his term. He has expressed interest in reducing tensions between the two and lowering sectarian violence. Khan visited the kingdom earlier this year, after his marriage, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have traditionally been close allies. Most famously they worked together with the CIA to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistani army had stationed a reinforced brigade group in Saudi Arabia to defend the royal family from threats external and internal. Saudi Arabia’s economic assistance to Pakistan has been extensive and could be crucial for Khan’s government as it deals with major economic challenges.
But relations have cooled considerably in the last four years due to the Yemeni war. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted Pakistan to join the war effort against the Houthi Zaydi Shiite rebels. The kingdom wanted Pakistan’s army to join Operation Decisive Storm. Senior Pakistani officials told me that the Saudis wanted a major Pakistani army contingent.
Then-Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif was summoned to Riyadh. He turned the issue over to the parliament at home, which voted unanimously against sending any troops. Khan’s Justice Party was at the forefront of the opposition. Last year, when Pakistan agreed to send a much smaller number of trainers to Saudi Arabia, Khan’s party was again opposed and demanded assurances that no troops would go to fight in Yemen. The party has also opposed Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-sponsored Islamic coalition against terrorism, the brainchild of Crown Prince Salman, because it is perceived with good reason to really be an anti-Iran alliance.
The most visible critic of ties to the kingdom in the Justice Party is Shireen Mazari. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Columbia University, she is now minister for human rights in Khan’s Cabinet. She had been rumored to be his choice for defense minister, but that job is largely powerless in Pakistan because the army makes all the decisions on defense issues. Khan owes his election in large part to the army and its intimidation of his political enemies.
Mazari has led the criticism of the Saudi war in Yemen and the opposition to aligning Pakistan with the kingdom, calling the previous government “dishonest” about sending trainers. She is also an advocate for completing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and for engaging with Iran to help end the war in Afghanistan.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif is due in Islamabad soon, as is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a very competent and experienced choice, has said Zarif’s visit is a positive sign. Qureshi is well aware of the tightrope Pakistan has to walk between Riyadh and Tehran, especially since relations with Washington are at a low ebb in the Trump administration. The Saudis and Iranians both have extensive ties to sectarian militants, Sunni and Shiite, who can blow up the internal situation in Pakistan.
A Pakistani initiative to cool tensions between the Saudis and Iranians is a good thing for the region. The polarization of the region into hostile camps is causing immense humanitarian damage, most of all in Yemen.
This fall, Riyadh could start a process toward de-escalation, or it could ratchet tensions up considerably. The Saudi prosecutor’s decision to request a death sentence for a Saudi Shiite woman for nonviolent protests — the first time a woman has been given a death sentence — is a dangerous and provocative escalation in sectarianism. Israa al-Ghamgham’s release from her sentencing could be a wise and generous move by King Salman to de-escalate the fire burning in the Middle East. Her execution will light up the storm.