go to top
Royal Saudi Land Forces and units of Special Forces of the Pakistani army during a joint military exercise, Shamrakh field, north of Baha region, Saudi Arabia, March 30, 2015 (AP photo/Saudi Press Agency).

Pakistan Struggles to Balance Saudi, Iran Ties in Tense Middle East

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif visited Saudi Arabia last week for the closing ceremonies of a multinational military exercise, following recent tensions in relations. In an email interview, Shehzad H. Qazi, managing director at CBB International and a geopolitical analyst specializing in emerging and frontier markets, discussed Pakistan’s relations with Middle East nations.  

WPR: Who are Pakistan’s main partners in the Middle East, and what are their main areas of cooperation?

Shehzad Qazi: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey are three of Pakistan’s main partners in the Middle East.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have a long history of security cooperation, with Pakistan having based thousands of soldiers in the kingdom in the past, such as during the 1991 Gulf War. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is also one of Pakistan’s largest trade partners, a major source of crude oil, and a key provider of grants and loans, especially during times of crises such as in 2014 when the kingdom lent Pakistan $1.5 billion to avert an impending balance of payments crisis.

The UAE is another major trade partner and, like Saudi Arabia, hosts a large number of immigrant Pakistani workers whose remittances are important to Pakistan’s economy. Moreover, with foreign cricket teams not visiting Pakistan due to security concerns, the UAE also hosts many of Pakistan’s international cricket games as well as now its domestic franchise, the Pakistan Super League.

Turkey and Pakistan have traditionally enjoyed close relations, especially during the Cold War, and have cooperated on a variety of trade and economic issues—such as creating the Economic Cooperation Organization—and security matters. In recent years Turkey has launched various governance and economic development projects in Pakistan. It also played an important role in mediating differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan through the trilateral summit begun in 2008 to stabilize the Central-South Asian region.

Finally, over the past several years, Iran, once a Cold War ally, has again occupied an important position in Pakistan’s foreign policy. With international sanctions being lifted, both countries are resuming energy cooperation involving natural gas and electricity imports from Iran as well as planning to boost bilateral trade and even sign a free trade agreement. In the post-sanctions era, Iran holds the potential of becoming a critical partner for Pakistan in the Middle East.

WPR: How will the Iranian nuclear deal, and the prospect of renewed Pakistan-Iran relations, affect ties with the rest of the Middle East?

Qazi: Tectonic shifts are currently occurring within South Asia’s geopolitical structure. A web of strategic partnerships are arising as a result of key global players—the U.S., China and Russia; proximate regional powers—Saudi Arabia and Iran; and even smaller countries like Oman, strengthening their engagements with India and Pakistan through infrastructure projects, investment and trade deals, and defense cooperation. So Pakistan’s relations with the Middle East have been transforming in recent years, with the Iranian nuclear deal further catalyzing change.

The predictable result of Iran and Pakistan deepening their engagement is nervousness among the Saudis and other Gulf countries that they are losing ground in a regional battle for supremacy. Of course this is happening simultaneous to Pakistan resisting entanglement in Middle Eastern security crises despite Saudi requests for involvement.

Therefore, the impact will be twofold, with potential risk and opportunity. The risk is that Gulf countries will ultimately see Pakistan acting in flagrant disregard of their regional interests, especially the importance of checking Iran’s power, as well as showing a lack of commitment to their security. As a result, Pakistan has to perform a balancing act: advancing its economic interests through a natural partnership with Iran without jeopardizing its decades-old alliance with Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf nations.   

However, these developments also offer Pakistan the opportunity to strengthen its hand by playing a mediating role to ease Iran-Saudi tensions. By acting responsibly, Pakistan can more effectively allay the fears of its Arab allies, and if its position as a broker is accepted and taken seriously, the net affect on Pakistan’s relations with the Middle East could be very positive.

WPR: What, if any, fallout has there been from Pakistan’s cool response to Saudi Arabia’s recent security initiatives in the region, particularly the Yemen intervention and counterterrorism coalition?

Qazi: There are some observers, including members of the U.S. intelligence community, who think that Pakistan’s rejection of the Saudis’ request for military involvement in Yemen will certainly have a damaging effect on their “special relationship” in the long run. I do not share that view.

Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE, were obviously very unhappy when Pakistan’s parliament voted to stay neutral in the Yemen conflict last year, with the UAE’s foreign minister going so far as to say that Pakistan would pay a heavy price for its stance. Then in December, the Pakistani Foreign Office’s initial refusal and subsequent agreement to join the counterterror alliance also caused embarrassment. Moreover, Pakistan has also continuously opposed any foreign military intervention in Syria or efforts to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

These episodes illustrate that the two countries are not in lockstep when it comes to Saudi Arabia pushing for major security initiatives in the Middle East, and especially when they ask for Pakistan’s direct involvement.

The fallout from these events, however, was limited to a temporary cooling of bilateral relations in 2015. Both sides moved swiftly to contain the damage and remove the strains. Senior Saudi officials have visited Pakistan, while Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif have visited Saudi Arabia several times since then—including last week for the Saudis’ controversial “North Thunder” multilateral military exercise—to stabilize the bilateral alliance. Last week Saudi Arabia also pledged $122 million—including $67 million in grants and rest loans—for various development projects in Pakistan. Both are sending across a strong message that despite disagreements and some diverging interests, this bilateral relationship remains one of the most important for them.

In the evolving and ever-more complex geopolitical architecture of South Asia, the Saudi-Pakistan alliance will never again look like its old self. What’s crucial, however, is that both sides understand that the solution is more diplomatic engagement, not less.