Saudi-Iran rapprochement; where does Pakistan stand?


It is a fact that both Iran and Saudi Arabia never resorted to a direct scuffle however the Saudis always considered Iran a potential threat for which they always needed support from Pakistan


Ansar M Bhatti

March 10, 2023 would ostensibly go down in the annals of history as a landmark day when arch rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to mend their fences as a result of a deal brokered by China. Though the development has taken almost all regional, and even other countries by sheer surprise, yet this historic development is likely to alter regional as well global political landscape because it was not just Saudi Arabia and Iran’s bilateral conflict, the spill-over effects of this bilateral animosity were felt globally. Pakistan was not an exception either given the fact that both Saudi Arabia and Iran had always tried to strengthen their foothold in Pakistan for a variety of reasons.

The agreement turns out to be a rare example of successful Chinese mediation in Middle Eastern disputes and a likely gift to Beijing by the two Middle Eastern nations. Saudi Arabia broke off relations after Iranians stormed the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran in 2016 in protest against the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric. Iran and Saudi Arabia are not directly fighting but they are engaged in a variety of proxy wars (conflicts where they support rival sides and militias) around the region.

In the past 15 years in particular, the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been sharpened by a series of events. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who had been a major Iranian adversary. This removed a crucial military counter-weight to Iran. Saudis believed the overthrowing of Saddam regime opened the way for a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and Iranian influence in the country has been rising ever since. Fast-forward to 2011 and uprisings across the Arab world caused political instability throughout the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited these upheavals to expand their influence, notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. Saudi-Iran rapprochement of course may help find a solution to these conflicts, which have adversely affected regional peace and stability. Nevertheless, there are certain quarters who strongly believe there may not be any significant breakthrough either in Yemen or Syria even after the Iran-Saudi détente, at least in the near future. Such elements have their own reasons in support of their argument.

As regards Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia after this ‘peace deal’, the situation is likely to take some interesting turns. Saudis have always been close friends of Pakistan, especially during the times when the country was hit hard by the economic and at times political crises as well. It was the Saudi support that could salvage Islamabad’s economic woes most of the time. Even in the ongoing economic meltdown it is because of the Saudi support that prevented Pakistan from drifting towards a possible default. It remains a fact also that during the past months Saudi Arabian support has not been forthcoming and spontaneous.  Attaching stings to its support has never been a practice. This time the Saudis linked any further financial assistance to Islamabad’s agreement with the IMF. There are indeed some reasons if things have come to such a pass in terms of ‘tepid’ relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The Pak-Saudi relations witnessed perhaps first jolt in 2015 when the Pakistan’s parliament decided against military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was considered a close ally of the Saudis, refused to send troops under the plea that since the Parliament had decided against it therefore it was not possible for him to entertain the Saudi request. Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to contribute ships, aircraft and troops to the campaign to restore President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Independent analysts earnestly believe that the then government did not want to entertain the Saudi request that is why it took the matter to the parliament and thus got it disapproved there.

It is a fact that both Iran and Saudi Arabia never resorted to a direct scuffle however the Saudis always considered Iran a potential threat for which they always needed support from Pakistan, even military, albeit Islamabad never acceded to this demand under the pretext that it believed in neutrality.

In 2019 the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan incurred upon himself the onus of mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In October 2019 Imran Khan visited Iran and met with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. This mediation attempt came at a time when both Iran and Saudi Arabia were about to go to war over the Yemen issue.  The Iranian government had told Imran Khan that the Islamic Republic was always ready, with or without a mediator, to hold talks with its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. There were many reasons due to which Imran Khan’s efforts could not yield any results but the main reason was a strong perception within the Iranian government ranks that Imran Khan had unleashed the efforts on the ‘instructions’ of the then American administration.

Undoubtedly Iran and Saudi Arabia happen to be the most influential countries in the Muslim world. Their rapprochement will certainly have a positive impact especially on countries like Pakistan, which have been bearing the brunt of Iran-Saudi rivalry for a long time. Apart from government circles, the ordinary Pakistanis too have welcomed this development and genuinely believe it will usher in a new era of peace and stability in the region.

To be continued