The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Pakistan’s Approach to Navigating Saudi-Iran Tensions: Solidarity With Riyadh

How to make sense of Pakistan’s new approach of solidarity towards Saudi Arabia.

Umair Jamal
Pakistan’s Approach to Navigating Saudi-Iran Tensions: Solidarity With Riyadh
Credit: Facebook via ImranKhanOfficial

Tensions are running high in the Middle East following the attacks on major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. The attack, which is believed to have been carried out by Iran or its proxy elements in the region, has the potential to create another phase of hostility between Riyadh and Tehran. Following the attack, the United States has decided to deploy additional troops to Saudi Arabia while the Kingdom reaches out to other allies for military and diplomatic support.

Pakistan is one of the countries that Saudi Arabia expects to be on the frontlines when faced with a military crisis. However, for some time, Islamabad has been skillfully evading the Kingdom’s pressure to join the latter’s military adventures in the region. Can Islamabad escape Riyadh’s pressure one more time?

In 2015, Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution, calling for neutrality in Yemen’s conflict. Moreover, Pakistan not only decided to stay neutral in the Yemen conflict but also refused to commit any military deployment to support Riyadh’s armed operations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Gulf region accused Pakistan of siding with Iran called the country’s decision to not send troops to Yemen as “contradictory and dangerous and unexpected from Islamabad.”

The demoralized relationship between Islamabad and Riyadh has improved again during the last couple of years. The reasons behind the Kingdom’s new leadership’s decision to patch-up ties with Islamabad are twofold.

First, though Pakistan may not have openly assisted the Kingdom in Yemen, the country still supports Saudi Arabia militarily domestically which remains one of the Kingdom’s primary concerns. Last year, Pakistan deployed a contingent of troops to Saudi Arabia. On the nature of deployment, Pakistan’s military’s media wing said that “These troops will not be employed outside KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia]. Pak Army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]/regional countries.” The statement’s focus on bilateral security cooperation and deployment inside the Kingdom is meant to put to rest questions whether the deployment was part of the Saudi-led 41 nation counter-terrorism alliance that Iran considers against its interests.

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Second, Riyadh has begun to understand Islamabad’s geopolitical sensitives when it comes to the latter’s desire to follow a balanced strategy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s likely that Saudi’s acknowledgement of Pakistan’s desire is born out of a negotiated settlement between the two countries where, short of a discernible alliance, Pakistan is ready to support Saudi Arabia’s security. When Pakistan declares that the country will protect Saudi Arabia’s borders, the former is vowing to protect an ally against a foreign aggression. This position instinctively rules out Pakistan’s participation in an operation that may not be constructive to Islamabad’s interests.

The current situation concerning the oil facility attacks has brought out a predictable response from Islamabad. Last week, following the attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Saudi Arabia to express solidarity with the Kingdom. Prior to Khan’s visit, Pakistan’s foreign office condemned the attack and reiterated its support for the Kingdom’s security. While Pakistan has condemned the attacks, Islamabad has neither blamed Iran nor has expressed any desire to join Riyadh if the country decided to take an action against Tehran. If anything, Pakistan’s response has been one that encourages caution and dialogue between the two countries. “We assured the Saudis of our solidarity but also emphasized the need for caution,” said Pakistan’s foreign minister. He further added that “We urged them [Saudi leadership] not to rush into decisions that could hurt peace and stability of the region.”

It’s expected that Khan’s visit was requested by the Saudi leadership to ask for Pakistan’s support following the oil refineries attack. We may not know the commitments that Khan may have made during the trip, but it’s not going to be something that overtly annoys Iran or creates sectarian fissures domestically.

Going forward, we should not expect that the Kingdom is going to extract cooperation from Pakistan that publicly challenges Iran’s Interests.