Sunday April 21, 2024

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan

By Saleem Safi
January 15, 2016

It is unfortunate that some ‘intellectuals’ are trying to paint the Saudi-Iran rift as an internal issue of Pakistan. It is equally sad to see the religious Right depict this as a war between right and wrong. And then there are those Pakistanis who were born here and live here but somehow are more concerned with the interests of Saudi Arabia or Iran than of Pakistan.

The fact is that the Saudi-Iran rift is based on extreme nationalism. It has its roots in historic, economic, linguistic, psychological and cultural differences. However, both nations prefer to use religion and sectarian identity as tools to pursue this nationalistic conflict. Both prepare and use proxies to hurt each other.

For the last so many decades, the US used the Salafi school in Islam as an effective tool for its foreign policy in the Middle East. Now it is being thought that the US wishes to use the Shia school for the same purpose. Saudi Arabia and Iran both claim that they are against the state of Israel. However, it is very evident that each looks at the other as the number one enemy. Both share a strange sense of pride about their own history. And both seem to share a sense of superiority over South Asians, especially Pakistani citizens.

So the best option we are left with is to look at this Saudi-Iran conflict from our own perspective. There is no doubt that both nations have hurt Pakistan’s interests many times. They hire, train and use their proxies in our country, and fan sectarianism too. Both support their proxies financially through religious institutions and projects. The Arabs never damaged their relations with India over Pakistani concerns on Kashmir. But, while a few Arab nations have established diplomatic relations with Israel, Pakistan to date has not recognised Israel. The same goes with Iran; instead of giving any weight to our conflict with India, Iran has declared India as its strategic partner in the region and in Afghanistan.

For better understanding, a comparison between Iran and Saudi Arabia is inevitable. In that, Arab states have indeed done more good to Pakistan than Iran. The number of Pakistani workforce in the Arab states is far greater than in Iran. Iran has acted more as a rival over Afghanistan issues, preferring to side with India. On the other hand, the Arabs – led by the Saudis – have always stood with Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Iran has pursued anti-Pakistan policies, while Arabs followed the same policy as Pakistan.

The Taliban belong to the Hanafi sect, their rival Ustad Syaf belongs to the Salafi school while Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani were Akhwani. But when Pakistan decided to support the Taliban, the Arabs ignored their sectarian preferences, and supported the Taliban as well. Saudi Arabia and the UAE in fact extended formal recognition to the Taliban government. So on Afghanistan, Iran sides with India while the Arabs are with Pakistan. Iran has never helped out in times of trouble. When Dr A Q Khan was facing serious international allegations, Iran gave documents to the UN that could cause real trouble for Pakistan.

On the other hand, when Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests, only Saudi Arabia came to the rescue and saved us from economic collapse. So if it comes to comparison on the basis of interests of Pakistan, indeed no parity can be drawn between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

So what should be our decision? Since Arab states have served our interests, do we follow the Arab policy? Indeed no. There are a number of reasons that prove that such a course would be dangerous. If Saudi Arabia is respected by millions of Pakistanis for the Two Holiest Sites in Islam, Iran carries religious respect for many Shia Pakistani citizens. If Arabs are our well wishers, Iran is our neighbour. Besides, the basis of our close relations with both countries is Islam, and the current conflict has nothing to do with Islam.

Perhaps the most important aspect to consider is that the current fissure is damaging the interests of Muslims around the globe. No brutal killings of Muslims were possible in Syria, Yemen and Iraq without this conflict. It was also not possible to keep Palestine enslaved by Israel if conflict was not sustained in the region.

From a purely Pakistani perspective, we are at war at home. The country has to guard its long borders in the east and the west. In this situation, joining a war abroad would be nothing but suicidal for Pakistan.

Pakistan’s decision-makers now have a difficult and important question: how does Pakistan not join any side in this conflict? The answer is not that difficult if we look at the success of Pakistan’s foreign policy in guarding its neutrality. Iran and Iraq fought each other for quite some time, but Pakistan never sided with either of them. Likewise, Pakistan established close relations with the US since the time of Liaquat Ali Khan, and even in the era of Ayub Khan. Yet in the US-China rivalry Pakistan remained neutral; and when opportunity warranted, Pakistan acted as a bridge between the two for their first mutual diplomatic contact.

During the cold-war era, Pakistan was the base camp to wage war against the USSR, but never allowed itself to be used as an anti-Iran agent in the region. To this end, Pakistan sustained intense global pressure during the regimes of Zia, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf. I am confident that Pakistan will be able to maintain such a policy for the current conflict.

History shows that, like any other nation, Pakistan shifted its diplomatic stance according to the best options available. Thus at times we supported Iran while at other times the US. Likewise, in US-China relations we shifted our support, case to case, on the merit of national interests. However, in the present situation, Pakistan has to show tenacity. If a tiny Arab country like Oman can maintain neutrality, why not Pakistan? If Pakistan acted as a bridge between China and the US, why not to do the same for Iran and Saudi Arabia?

I am a bit doubtful of the arbitration capabilities of the present Pakistani leadership. But this is certainly the perfect time to stop recruitment, training and funding to proxies in Pakistan. This is the time to break down the financial channels for proxies, and to impose a complete ban on rallies in favour of Iran or Saudi Arabia. The proper way to handle this issue is that all steps must be taken by the state and government of Pakistan – only. It must be ensured that the government and state of Pakistan take these decisions on merit and in the best interests of Pakistan – only.

The writer works for Geo TV.