Saudi-Iran Rivalry: Implications for Pakistan

Author Name: Maham S. Gillani       07 Jan 2022     Regional security/Region

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in a bitter competition for power and influence in the Middle East for decades. The age-old rivalry between them is aggravated by ideology, nationalism, race for regional hegemony, competition for leadership of the Islamic world, alliances with countries such as the United States and Israel, oil prices, and last but not least, sectarian differences—Iran largely follows the Shia branch of Islam, while Saudi Arabia views itself as a Sunni power in the Muslim world. Many countries in the Middle East such as Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Iraq are marred by proxy warfare between the two countries where Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides.

Yemen has been a geostrategic battleground for Iran and Saudi Arabia since 2015—when Saudi Arabia led an intervention to militarily support Mansur Hadi’s government against Iranian backed Houthi rebels. The ongoing civil war in Yemen aggravated by regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to fuel one of the worst humanitarian crises. Similarly, in Syria, Iran has been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government whereas Saudi Arabia has been supplying arms and weapons to rebel forces fighting to oust his regime. While Syria’s ten-year long civil war has now become less bloody as it enters an extended endgame, it remains highly volatile.

Moreover, the Israel-Palestine conflict has also become entangled in the larger Saudi-Iran power tussle. As tensions between Israel and Hamas flare-up, Saudi Arabia is now more willing to remain silent on the Palestinian issue in exchange for Israeli diplomatic, defense and technological support for containing Iran. The US-brokered diplomatic normalization deals between Israel the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain formalized a strategic realignment against Iran that had been an open secret in the region. The deals also signify that more Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—which enjoy close ties with Saudi Arabia—could normalize relations with Israel, sans settlement of Israel-Palestine conflict, in a bid to contain Iran.

The fractious Saudi-Iran rivalry is not only limited to the Middle East but spreads to South Asia where it has had far-reaching implications for Pakistan’s security, economy, and society. Islamabad, being a close ally of Riyadh and an immediate neighbor of Tehran is caught in the crossfire.

Pakistan is a Sunni dominant country with a sizable Shia population. The power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran have led to the development of a deep fissure between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan. After the 1979 revolution, Iran sought to bolster its support for the Shiites in the region. In a bid to contain Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia funded numerous religious seminaries in the 1980s which taught a more puritanical version of Islam than had traditionally been practiced in Pakistan. These seminaries were engaged in production and dissemination of sectarian hate literature and turned into breeding grounds of radicalization and militancy in Pakistan, thereby deepening the divide between the Shia and Sunni population.

This division across sectarian lines and religious polarization in the country also gave birth to a series of sectarian terrorist outfits, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Sipah-e-Muhammad. These Sunni extremist outfits regularly targeted leaders of the Shia community, bombed their mosques and targeted Ashura processions that killed scores of innocent people. Sectarian hate and violence morphed into terrorism and became a serious threat for the national security of Pakistan. Reports of sectarian violence and terrorism surfaced in virtually all provinces of Pakistan, especially during the 2013-18 period. Areas such as DI Khan, Kohat, Parachinar, Quetta, Jhang and Faisalabad remain hotbeds of sectarian militancy and violence.

Pakistan has to adopt a cautious policy to make sure that the simmering sectarian tensions stoked by Saudi-Iran tussle do not come to a boil. It is also pertinent to mention that KSA and Iran hold immense economic, security and geostrategic significance for Pakistan. To start with, Saudi Arabia has consistently offered generous economic assistance to Pakistan. It announced USD 4.2 billion worth of economic assistance recently. Earlier, in 2018, Pakistan received a bailout package worth USD 6 billion. Moreover, a large chunk of the Pakistani workforce—2.6 million—resides in Saudi Arabia and sends back remittances which are vital to keep Pakistan’s economy afloat. A report by State Bank of Pakistan estimates that remittances received from Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia amounted to USD 821.6 million in the 2019/2020 financial year. This shows the enormous economic importance of Saudi Arabia for Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia also holds huge religious significance. There is a large Sunni majority in Pakistan which has a religious affinity towards Saudi Arabia. It is the site of the holiest religious places—Haramain Sharifain—revered by the Muslims. Many also believe that it is their religious obligation to protect the holy sites in Saudi Arabia from any threat. In this context, Pakistan cannot afford to antagonize Saudi Arabia by clamping down on its funding of religious seminaries in the country or taking any such measures.

On the other end of the spectrum, sharing a 909 kilometers long border, Iran is a close neighbor of Pakistan. A peaceful border with Iran is sine qua non for peace and stability in Balochistan—a restive province of Pakistan. A long and hostile border with India on the east, and a precarious and porous border with Afghanistan on the west make stability of the Pakistan-Iran border even more important. Intelligence and security cooperation between Tehran and Islamabad is necessary to stamp out the militants residing in remote border areas between the two countries.

Relations with Iran should move beyond regional rivalries, and shift towards geoeconomics. In this regard, measures should be taken to accentuate bilateral trade, especially in the agricultural sector. The IP gas pipeline could be revived. It has the capacity to provide 750 million cubic feet per day (MMCFD) which could greatly help in bridging the energy gap in the country. Moreover, Tehran has expressed its wish to be included in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Making it a partner in CPEC could aid in deepening engagement and cooperation on defense, security, energy, and economic issues.

Nevertheless, advancing cooperation with Tehran is a serious challenge for Islamabad against the backdrop of US sanctions on Iran and its bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, due to a large Sunni population and economic compulsions, Pakistan has a tilt towards Saudi Arabia. Yet the tilt has its limits—e.g., Pakistan refused to be embroiled in the Yemen conflict. In this complex geopolitical landscape, Pakistan should continue to play the role of a bridge and a peacemaker in the region. It must skillfully balance its relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, while its relations with the latter may be strong, it must continue to eschew overtly picking sides in any Saudi-Iran dispute.

Maham S. Gillani is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan.  The article was first published in South Asia magazine. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.

Image Source: Khan, Shariq. (2019, October 13) "The Saudi-Iran conflict and Pakistan." Express Tribune.  https://tribune.com.pk/story/2078539/saudi-iran-conflict-pakistan

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