Pakistan’s Balanced Policy in the Middle East

By Sajjad Shaukatmiddle_east_map

An article, under the title, “Pakistan—A key GCC ally”‏, published in the “Arab News” on January 15, 2016, written by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed needs appropriate attention.

Abdulrahman mentioned that three million Pakistanis who work in the Gulf countries, and the $4 billion in annual transactions they make, the region considers relations with Pakistan strategic.
He elaborates, “The country is not viewed as a mere trading partner or another Muslim nation. Pakistan has always been considered part of the formula of regional balance with Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

He wrote, “Pakistan’s military capabilities qualify it to play a balancing role in the region, whereby it is a deterrent against Iranian expansionism, which has increased following the nuclear deal. Despite tensions, I do not think the situation will deteriorate into military conflict between major regional countries. However, an active Pakistani presence in the Middle East, and particularly in the Gulf region, will provide regional stability and security, and enhance Islamabad’s international influence.”

Abdulrahman said, “Since Pakistan is militarily stronger than its neighbor Iran, with which it shares a 900-kilometer border, Tehran has avoided a confrontation with Islamabad, although it has not stopped inciting sectarian tensions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

He further wrote, “Iran has been keen to tempt Islamabad by talking of building a gas pipeline through Pakistan—a plan that has always been delayed by regional crises, geopolitical issues and sanctions on Iran that prevented bilateral trade. Even if Tehran implements the plan, Pakistani interests in Arab Gulf countries are huge and have bigger value commercially, politically and religiously.”

He concluded, “Pakistan has played a balancing role with Iran in the Gulf since the 1970s, and its weight increased as Tehran’s threats against Gulf countries increased in the 1980s. Consecutive Pakistani governments have strengthened relations with the Gulf countries. The Gulf countries consider Pakistan a strategic ally, and a provider of regional balance aimed at preventing Iranian unilateralism and chaos.”

Although in his article, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed has pointed out Pakistan’s balancing role in the Middle East, yet he has not taken cognizance of the facts impartially. In other words, he has shown that Islamabad more prefers its relationship with the countries of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) than Iran.”

In fact, Pakistan has been acting upon a balanced policy in the Middle East, which could be judged in light of some developments.

In this regard, rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran widened in the aftermath of the execution of the prominent Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr as part of Riyadh’s executions of 47 persons on terrorism charges, on January 2, this year. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries like Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, including Sudan broke off diplomatic relations with Iran.

The long rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has come to a boiling point, as rulers and religious leaders of both the countries were accusing each other of promoting sectarian divide in the Islamic World on the Shia-Sunni basis, while manipulating Arab-non-Arab differences.

In this respect, on January 5, 2016, the Adviser to Pakistan’s Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz said before the National Assembly. Pakistan is concerned over recent tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran…the Muslim World faces grave dangers in the situation.”

The statement follows criticism from opposition parties which lashed out at the government in the National Assembly for not coming up with a clear stance on the situation arising out in the region because of the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and called for a parliamentary briefing on the issue. Aziz also gave an in-camera briefing to the National Assembly on the Saudi-Iran tensions.

Aziz maintained that Pakistan will continue to play its positive role to ease tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and it advocates unity among the Muslim countries.

For the purpose, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif had visited Saudi Arabia and Iran. They held meetings with their rulers in in a bid to defuse tensions between the two countries. They called for resolution of the crisis through peaceful means in the larger interest of the Muslim world.

According to the ISPR, during the meeting in Riyadh, Gen. Raheel highlighted Pakistan’s perspective on the Middle East situation and pointed out, “Due to the situation in Middle East, the Muslim Ummah is weakening,” and “stressed the need for opening up the communication channel between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

Speaking to media in Tehran after meeting Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and his cabinet members, the prime minister said Pakistan had achieved success in normalising ties between the two countries in 1997 and also played the same role during tensions between Iran and Iraq.

He said, “Pakistan will appoint a focal person on Saudi-Iran issue and sincere efforts are being done in this regard.”

In his meeting with the Iranian Defence Minister Hosse Dehghan in Islamabad, Gen. Raheel Sharif reiterated that “Pakistan takes Iran as a very important neighbouring Muslim country and the people of Pakistan have a great affinity with their Iranian brothers.” The Iranian defence minister thanked Gen. Raheel and the people of Pakistan for their efforts to bolster regional security.

While, during the trip of Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman at Islamabad, Pakistan’s prime minister and chief of army staff had assured him to defuse tension between the two brother countries. His visit came just four days after the kingdom’s Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir visited Islamabad.

It is notable that some media analysts had misinterpreted the statements of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Raheel Sharif that during their interactions with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, they preferred Riyadh over Tehran by reiterating that “the people of Pakistan would always stand with the people of Saudi Arabia against any threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the kingdom.” However, it was not true, as Islamabad decided to play a mediatory role between the two Muslim countries as part of a balanced approach in the Middle East.

It is mentionable that in the recent past, Islamabad refused to send its troops in Syria to fight against the Islamic State group (ISIS) which is Sunni-based militant outfit and wants to oust the Shia-government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Similarly, last year, Riyadh insisted upon Pakistan to send its armed forces in Saudi Arabia and also to join the coalition to conduct aerial strikes on Yemen. Islamabad which did not join the coalition had also refused to dispatch its forces in Saudi Arabia. Instead, Pakistan’s parliament had passed a unanimous resolution which stated, “The war in Yemen is not sectarian in nature, but has the potential of turning into a sectarian conflict which will have critical fallout in the region including Pakistan.” It urged the government “to stay neutral in the Yemen” conflict and called upon “warring factions in Yemen to resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue.”

On December 15, 2015, Saudi Arabia announced a 34-state Sunni-based military alliance to fight the ISIS. The alliance included Islamic states such as Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia, and some African states, with a joint operations centre established in Riyadh. The name of Pakistan was also mentioned in the list. Washington immediately welcomed the alliance.

On December 17, 2015, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry said that he was surprised to read the news that Saudi Arabia had named Pakistan as part of the alliance.

As already stated that in wake of Iran-Saudi Arabia rift, Pakistan’s National Assembly debated the issue, when Sartaj Aziz informed the Assembly that Pakistan would continue to play its mediatory role between Iran and Saudi Arabia, The Leader of Opposition Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah and other parliamentary leaders had asked the government to refrain from joining the Saudi Arabia-led alliance at the cost of neighboring Iran.

It is of particular attention that the US had planned to spark a civil war between the Sunnis and Shias in wake of war on terror. For the purpose, a study of Rand Corporation, titled ‘US Strategy in the Muslim World After 9/11’ was conducted on behalf of the then US Deputy Chief of Staff for Air Force. Its report which was released on December 27, 2004 advocated that Sunni-Shia sectarian division should be exploited to promote the US objectives in the Muslim World. The report was first implemented in Iraq.
In 2004, major terror-attacks were carried out against the Shias. Afterwards, a chain of Shia-Sunni clashes started between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis, targeting each other’s mosques and religious leaders through bomb blasts, suicide attacks etc. After Iraq’s experiment, more deadly pattern of sectarian strife and clashes have been conducted in Pakistan. With the tactical assistance of American CIA and Mossad, Indian secret agency RAW have arranged a number of attacks on mosques and religious leaders of Shias and Sunnis through the militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jundullah (God’s soldiers). These outfits kidnapped and killed many Iranian nationals in Pakistan including Iranian diplomats. Jundollah conducted several subversive acts in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan and Iranian Sistan-Baluchistan. In this regard, Tehran has directly accused CIA of funding these types of terror attacks.

It is noteworthy that while hinting towards US and Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had disclosed, “The bloody actions being committed in Iraq, Pakistan and Iran are aimed at creating a division between the Shias and Sunnis…those who carry out these terrorist actions are directly or indirectly foreign agents.”

Pakistan’s leading Ulemas (Religious scholars) of the Shia-Sunni sects, including politicians have repeatedly pointed out that external conspiracies were being hatched to destroy peace in the country though sectarian divide.

Nonetheless, being a responsible country, Pakistan has been implementing a balance policy in the Middle East

Sajjad Shaukat writes on international affairs and is author of the book: US vs Islamic Militants, Invisible Balance of Power: Dangerous Shift in International Relations


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