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November 29, 2017

A balancing act


November 29, 2017

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, accompanied by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI DG Naveed Mukhtar, visited Saudi Arabia on Monday for a summit of the Islamic Military Alliance to Combat Terrorism, which took place at a time when the region is more unstable than ever. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a domestic effort that is ostensibly meant to root out corruption but is being seen by some as a way for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to neutralise any opposition to his rule. Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran continues to throw the region into turmoil, as the wars in Yemen and Syria rage and while Qatar remains isolated. Pakistan has a particularly difficult position to navigate since it has traditionally close ties to Saudi Arabia but also shares a border with Iran. An additional complicating factor is former Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif’s position as head of the IMACT, which could be seen by Iran as Pakistan officially endorsing an alliance the Iranians believe has been formed specifically to target them. As one of the featured speakers at the conference, Raheel Sharif went out of his way to say that the alliance would not target any particular sect or country but it will require a lot more than speeches to reassure Iran.

Pakistan has consistently taken the position that it will only be a part of the alliance if it stays non-sectarian. PM Abbasi’s meetings with the royal family were not restricted to the IMACT and covered a whole range of topics, from economic development to trade. But it is the question of terrorism that loomed large throughout. The IMACT, even though 41 countries have joined it, largely exists on paper right now. Raheel Sharif has no troops to command and many of the countries who are now part of the alliance would have second thoughts if forces were sent in to countries like Yemen and Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are on different sides. This is why the final declaration issued after the meeting explicitly said that countries will be allowed to opt out of military operations that they do not wish to participate in. For Pakistan, though, there is the additional complicating factor of Raheel Sharif. He is inextricably linked to the country and any actions he carries out as head of the alliance could reflect on us. Now that Abbasi has returned from his Saudi trip, his next task will be to convince Iran that any such alliance with Saudi Arabia will not affect our ties with Iran. It will be a tricky balancing act to pull off, especially if the Middle East wars heat up even more.

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