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Pakistan Should Not Become Party To Saudi-Iran Conflict

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Umer Farooq writes about Pakistan’s focus on religious solidarity as part of its foreign policy. He analyses Prime Minister Imran Khan’s attempts to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the fallout for Pakistan in case of a Saudi-Iran conflict.

In 1948, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Egypt, Haji Abdus Sattar Saith, met the King of Egypt, Shah Farouk for the first time. The ambassador was accompanied by several senior diplomats including Sultan M Khan, who was to become the country’s foreign secretary later in the 1970s. The meeting continued for around 15 minutes in the Royal Palace in Cairo, during which the Pakistani delegation presented various proposals to the Egyptian King.

The king was visibly amused by the performance of Pakistan’s diplomatic mission, which had called on him. Sultan M Khan later recalled in his memoirs published in London in the 1990s that the king described the performance of Pakistan’s diplomatic delegation as a ‘circus’.

Sultan M Khan wrote that an Egyptian official, Dr Rashad, told him that as soon as they were out of the room, Farouk said, “My God! What a circus.” The king was referring to the attires of the Pakistani delegation.

King Shah Farouk then asked his entourage to tell him when Islam came to mankind. Various answers were given but the king rejected them. Islam, he said, seemingly came to this world on 14th August 1947, when Pakistan became independent!

“This was July 1948, and in the short period of 11 months since independence, Pakistan had put forward proposals to Egypt and other Islamic countries for an Islamic banking system, an Islamic steamship company, an Islamic news agency, and an Islamic conference to discuss important issues facing them,” read Sultan M Khan’s memoirs.

Since Pakistan’s independence, the country’s ruling elite saw Islam and relations with Islamic countries as the central pillar of Pakistan’s foreign policy. In such a situation, Pakistani diplomats and politicians acted on the world stage as over-enthusiastic advocates of Islamic solidarity. This had its own benefits as far as Pakistani diplomacy was concerned, but it had its limitation as well. As former foreign secretary Sultan M Khan pointed out in his memoirs, Pakistan’s over-enthusiasm did not receive much admiration in Arab capitals.

Following this tradition of Islamic solidarity in Pakistan’s foreign policy and diplomacy, Prime Minister Imran Khan has embarked on a visit to Tehran and Riyadh in a bid to mediate between the two Middle Eastern rivals. He has met Iranian president and the supreme leader in Tehran and has now gone to Riyadh to discuss the situation with the Saudi crown prince.

One of the central pillars of Pakistan’s foreign policy, as described by a senior diplomat, is to avoid becoming a party to a conflict between two Muslim countries or within Muslim societies.

A senior diplomat said, “Pakistan has always tried to assist in resolving conflicts within Muslim societies and between Muslim countries……..no matter whether we had a military government or a civil government in Islamabad.”

This line of thinking points out that the elder Bhutto’s attempt to assemble leaders of Islamic countries in Lahore under the auspices of OIC and later General Zia’s attempt to embark on a peace mission to end Iran-Iraq conflict could be seen as the best of Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to facilitate the resolution of conflicts between Muslim countries.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, they say, is following an age-old tradition of Pakistan’s diplomacy to make an attempt to resolve conflicts between different Muslim countries. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are brotherly Muslim countries, and it is in Pakistan’s interests to avert any potential military conflict between the two brotherly countries.

It is true that Pakistan has historical and brotherly relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. But it is also true that Pakistan has never been (and there is no chance that it will be) a big player in Middle Eastern politics. The only relevance Pakistan has with the politics or security architecture of the region is the size of its military contingents deployed in Saudi Arabia from time to time.

Despite all the seeming attachments of Saudi Arabia and Iran to Sunni and Shia orthodoxy respectively, both these countries are and act like nation-states in regional politics and it is high time that Pakistan should also start acting like a nation-state. Islamic solidarity only plays a marginal role in Middle Eastern politics and the sooner Pakistan realises this the reality, the better.

For instance, Saudi Arabia will be more than happy to allow the deployment of more Pakistani troops on its soil in the name of Islamic solidarity. But it will hardly listen or be ready to comprise on its national interests – which it sees as clashing with Shia Iran – if the Pakistani prime minister appeals to the Saudi Monarch, in the name of Islamic solidarity, to avoid a conflict with Iran in order to avert the horrendous consequences of rising sectarian tensions in the region.

In case of direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan would be facing two dangerous consequences for its security. Firstly, Pakistan’s genie of sectarian conflict would get out of control. Secondly, oil prices would reach so high that Pakistan’s economy could collapse in the face of its increasing import bills.

Pursuing realistic objectives in foreign policy is the first principle of diplomacy. Engaging in diplomatic activity for achieving an objective beyond one’s capacity patently amounts to squandering away energy and time. That Pakistan should be worried about any potential conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is beyond any doubt. But embarking on a high-profile visit of Tehran and Riyadh as a way to mitigate our worries could simply be described as a way of self-projection and is an indication of the fact that Pakistan does not realise the security threat it faces from an Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict.

In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia and Iran fought out a proxy war in the streets of the urban areas of Pakistan through their proxies, which exist in Pakistani society in the shape of militant-sectarian groups. 

The first step the Pakistani government needs to take is to make sure that in case of a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the sectarian conflict should not reach Pakistani soil. Pakistan should be wary of the fact that the Saudi-Iran conflict has an inherent sectarian dimension. Their respective intelligence services and military setups are fighting proxy wars in various Muslim countries including Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. It would not be difficult for them to get a sectarian conflict to flare up in Pakistan again, especially when both sides have loyalists on their respective sides of the sectarian divide in Pakistani society.

Secondly, Pakistan’s ruling elite should fasten its seat belts and announce that Pakistan would not send additional troops to Saudi Arabia under any circumstances. Pakistan already has a contingent of 1200 troops serving on security duties in the Saudi Kingdom. Sending additional troops will increase the perception that Pakistan is increasingly becoming a party in the conflict.

Pakistan should also start worrying about alternate sources of energy and should think about a contingency plan in case the price of oil shoots up following a military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The chances of the country’s economy collapsing are quite strong in case of an oil price hike in the midst of a Saudi-Iran conflict.

It is high time we start thinking on these lines if we want to act like a mature nation-state and not like a senseless champion of some imaginary religious solidarity, which doesn’t exist on the ground. Lest somebody else in Tehran or Riyadh say, “What a Circus!”


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Naya Daur