Why Pakistan Cannot Afford a Saudi-Iran War

Author Name: Maham Shahid Gillani       25 Oct 2019     Regional security/Region

Endeavours to preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries underpinning Islamic unity constitute one of the guiding principles of Pakistan’s foreign policy. It is for this reason that soon after its inception, Pakistan remained at the forefront of efforts to not only establish cordial ties with the Islamic world but also accentuate issues pertaining to Muslims on international forums—such as United Nations. Moreover, the country has always played an active role in mediating between Muslim states—particularly those in the Middle East.

Following the recent notorious drone strikes on Aramco—one of the world’s biggest oil-producing facilities in Saudi Arabia—allegedly by the Iran-sponsored Houthis, triggered one of the most complex crises in the contemporary Arab world. In this context, Pakistan acted responsibly, in the spirit of its foreign policy objectives, by not compromising on its neutrality yet venturing to bring the two countries together.

It is worth mentioning here that Pakistan is a peace-loving country and has historically played an important role in diffusing tensions between important states having strained bilateral ties by virtue of facilitating dialogue between them. In a bid to normalise relations between the United States and China, Pakistan paved the passage for President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai in the 1970s. More recently, amidst Afghanistan being marred by widespread violence, Islamabad has been playing an instrumental role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and facilitating a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict.

When the recent crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran erupted against the backdrop of the Aramco attack, Pakistan effectively employed shuttle diplomacy—involving its top civil-military leadership—to keep tensions between the two states in check. Pakistan should be lauded for its peace ventures in the Arab world; nevertheless, it is important to highlight that averting a possible military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is in Islamabad’s own national interest for a host of reasons.

First, Pakistan has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world belonging to both Shia and Sunni sects. In the event of a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan may be forced, albeit unwillingly, to pick a side antagonising a significant chunk of its population belonging to the other sect. This may lead to a deep schism at all levels—societal, political, military and religious— which can potentially herald a dangerous internal conflict in the country. Therefore, Pakistan has to intricately balance its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and—while doing so—prevent an all-out confrontation between them.

Second, Iran is Pakistan’s immediate western neighbour sharing a 909-kilometre border. Any conflict between Saudi Arabia would inevitably spill over into Pakistan’s territory. Pakistan has already suffered immensely from the aftereffects of Soviet adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and cannot afford a renewed flow of refugees, drugs, weapons, proxy warfare, and terrorism emanating from the Middle East.

Third, Pakistan is an energy-starved country that relies heavily on petroleum imported from KSA. The country imports around 80% of its oil from Saudi Arabia and UAE - in case of military conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, this crucial oil supply would be disrupted. While disruption in the oil supply from Saudi Arabia would have adverse consequences on a global scale, the impact on Pakistan would be especially dire. Faltering oil supply and increase in oil prices would fuel inflation in Pakistan and thus have a grave bearing on its already struggling economy. Additionally, Iran could also hinder oil supplies from Strait of Hormuz, meaning that Pakistan would be forced to look for energy alternatives which might be more expensive and less feasible.

Fourth, Saudia Arabia—along with its allies in the gulf—employs a large chunk of Pakistani international workforce that constitutes the third-largest source of remittances for the country. These remittances help the capital-starved economy of Pakistan in balancing payments towards imports. The military conflict in the Arab world would mean that hundreds of Pakistanis employed there might have to head back home, not only further fuelling the country’s unemployment predicament but also causing a loss of billions of dollars in remittances.

Fifth, Saudi Arabia and Iran being important Muslim countries have historically supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. This has helped Pakistan exert pressure on India vis-à-vis the latter’s illegal occupation of Kashmir. A Saudi-Iran war would shift the world attention away from the Kashmir issue and give India a free hand in the region. New Delhi can also exploit exacerbation of instability in the Middle East in general and Pakistan’s neighbourhood in particular to pursue nefarious designs against Islamabad.

In a nutshell, mitigation of hostilities eventually leading to relative peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran—while being invaluable for stability in the Middle East—is important for Pakistan’s national security, political stability as well as economy. Peace between the two Muslim adversaries would be propitious for stability and prosperity in Pakistan. It is thus crucial for Islamabad to sustain—and even beef up—its efforts to reduce animosity and foster mutual understanding between Tehran and Riyadh in the near future. Doing so would also improve Pakistan’s image as a peace-loving nation at the global level.

(The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com)

This article was first published in Daily National Herald  Tribune. It can also be accessed at http://dailynht.com/epaper/main.php?action=epaper&id=main&page=5&dt=22-10-2019 .

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