Pakistan’s Balancing Act Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

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Islamabad tries to balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia with an aim to squeeze strategic space for India to maneuver in the Middle East region.

Pakistan’s relations with Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been traditionally warm and have witnessed significant convergence of their respective interests. These relations further strengthened during Prime Minister’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure, when strong military, economic and strategic relations with Saudi Arabia were considered the cornerstone of his Pan-Islamic foreign policy. However, although the relations between the two countries generally follow a positive course, there have been ups and downs between them. In particular, while they have experienced ups and downs in their long-term relationship, tension between both countries reached its peak in 2019 due to the Riyad’s stance the tension between the two countries reached its peak in 2019 due to Riyadh’s stance on the Kashmir issue and Pakistan’s accusatory rhetoric.

On the other hand, Iran is an important factor in determining Islamabad-Riyadh relations. Since 2019, after the problems occurred between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Iran tried to turn this situation into an opportunity and made an effort to focus on its relations with Pakistan. In this context, some Iranian officials, aware of the rapprochement between Turkey and Pakistan, made statements that a tripartite mechanism could be established between the three countries. As for Pakistan, Islamabad prioritizes not only experiencing some tensions due to long-term border problems and the issue of the Zainabiyoun Brigades, which has raised a lot of concerns, but also to prevent the rupture of relations with Iran.

Geopolitical Alignment Between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia experienced significant geopolitical alignment, especially in the after math of Iranian revolution of 1979. The strategic elite of both countries perceived that Iran’s new regime sought to export the new revolutionary ideology to neighborhood, thus an uptick in defense and security relations between both the countries in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was evident. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were allied throughout the Soviet-Afghan war, providing weapons to Afghan mujahideen groups fighting Soviets in Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were two of the three countries that had recognized the Taliban regime (1996-2001), the third one being UAE. When Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and faced subsequent economic sanctions, Saudi Arabia provided free oil amounting to 50,000 barrels per day to Pakistan to alleviate its chronic economic issues as a result of the crippling global sanctions. Saudi Arabia has also time and again provided deferred oil facility to Pakistan whenever the latter faced economic distress.

With the change in geopolitical dynamics and evolution of international system into a multipolar world, Saudi Arabia is trying to diversify its options by engaging with Pakistan and India simultaneously. This includes ramping up economic and defense ties with Pakistan’s archrival India. In 2019, KSA’s ambassador to India, Saud Bin Muhammed Al-Sati, stated that the Kingdom was looking forward to investing around $100 Billion dollars in the Indian economy. How Pakistan’s geopolitical alignment with Saudi Arabia evolves is yet to be seen.

When it comes to defense relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, this relationship reached its zenith when Pakistan deployed a few thousand troops to Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. As of 2016, according to the then foreign minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Asif, around 1180 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia. He reiterated publicly to defend Saudi territory in case of any violation of its sovereignty or territorial integrity based on previous defense agreements between both the states. Such statements can be understood in the background of the fact that Islam’s two holiest sites are located in Saudi Arabia, thus public opinion in Pakistan resonates with such national narratives. In addition to that the fact that Pakistan is the sole nuclear power in the Muslim world creates more space for such narratives in the national psyche of Pakistan’s population.  Many defense analysts also claimed that Saudi Arabia played a role in funding Pakistan’s nuclear program before Pakistan officially tested its nuclear weapons. However, this has been officially denied by Pakistan’s Foreign Office.  Pakistan and Saudi Arabia occasionally engage in bi-lateral military exercises while many Saudi officer cadets graduate from Pakistan’s Military/Naval/Airforce academies. Over the last few decades, this defense relationship can be considered robust.

In addition to this geopolitical alignment, Saudi Arabia also has great economic support to Pakistan, which has a decisive role in the relations between the two countries. Besides the economic support in the form of deferred oil facilities to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has occasionally provided few billion dollars to stabilize Pakistan’s economic turbulence.  In 2021, Saudi Arabia pledged to deposit $ 3 Billion to Pakistan’s State Bank to reduce economic stress on the country. Saudi Arabia also deposited money into Pakistan’s State Bank back in 2018, when Prime Minister Imran Khan took charge of office. Pakistan is an annual recipient of remittances amounting up to $ 26 Billion, as of 2021, out of which significant portion comes from Pakistani diaspora based in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is also Pakistan’s largest oil supplier. These oil imports constitute majority portion of the Saudi-Pak trade.

Islamabad’s Geopolitical Balancing Act Between Tehran and Riyadh

In recent years, Pakistan is resorted to deft geopolitical balancing between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2015, when Saudi Arabia and the    Gulf states asked for Pakistan’s military intervention in Yemen, Pakistani parliament refused to participate in that war and Pakistan officially decided to maintain a neutrality in that conflict. This development resulted in some divergence between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. In the aftermath of these developments Pakistan allowed its former Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif (who had led successful counter insurgency operations in tribal areas close to Afghan border) to become head of Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition (IMCTC), a multilateral anti-terror coalition based in Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan has consistently engaged Iran for border management, security cooperation and even joint naval drills. Iran has a significant position in Pakistan’s geostrategic calculus, given the fact that both countries share a 900km border with each other. Iran is part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), just like Pakistan, which is implementing China Pakistan Economic Corridor Project (CPEC), a flagship project of BRI. There have been talks in the past of linking Iran’s Chahbahar port with the Pakistan’s Gwadar port and subsequently linking Iran with CPEC corridor. However, Iran’s interests have more or less been at odds with those of Pakistan in regional issues particularly Afghanistan. From the decade of 1990’s, when both Iran and Pakistan supported opposing camps in Afghanistan, till the recent developments in the aftermath of Taliban takeover in Kabul, this divergence can be observed from statements of Iranian officials vis a vis Pakistan. An example of this was observed when the former Iranian President Ahmadinejad accused Pakistan of sending military and intelligence officers to Panjshir valley to assist Taliban fighters in an interview.

On the other hand, the border problems between Pakistan and Iran have an important role in determining Islamabad’s relations with both Tehran and Riyadh. In particular, the frequent terrorist attacks in Pakistan and the allegations that the Baloch Liberation Army has carried out most of the operations by crossing the Iranian border prompted Pakistan to take some measures against Iran. In addition, the fact that Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders also said that they have “dozens of Hezbollah type militant groups in Pakistan who are ready for carrying out military operations” also bothers countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is uncomfortable with the influence of Iran in Pakistan. It is a fact that, although Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi paid an official visit to Pakistan on February 14, 2022, after the recent attacks in Pakistan, and condemned the attacks, it has been widely voiced by the Pakistani media that terrorists have fled to Iranian territory after the attacks. According to the claims of Pakistani experts, these claims have been proven as a result of the investigations made by the Pakistani authorities.

As for Saudi Arabia, the visit of Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif, who went to Pakistan on February 7, a week before Iranian Interior Minister’s visit to Pakistan, was interpreted as Islamabad’s turn to Riyadh after the attacks on the Iranian border. However, as could be seen in the statement made after both visits, the Islamabad administration is trying to develop policies that will not make Tehran offended, despite the increasing attacks and Saudi Arabia’s offers of assistance after the attacks. As a matter of fact, after the attacks originating from Iranian territory, there has been an increase in the rhetoric of increasing cooperation between Iran and Pakistan on border security issues, while Pakistan, on the other hand, keeps the option of fencing the Pak-Iranian border on the table, which is a situation that will please Saudi Arabia. Therefore, although Islamabad has made it clear that it wants to remain a neutral player in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry despite its close partnership with Riyadh, the Iran-Pakistan border tensions and Iran’s increasing proxy power in Pakistan open up opportunities for the Saudis to increase their influence in Pakistan.

All in all, despite the aforementioned facts and concrete claims, Islamabad will try to maintain cooperation with both Iran and Saudi Arabia with its balance policy without offending the two countries with an aim to squeeze strategic space for India to maneuver in the Southwest Asian region.

Aydın Güven

Saad Yousaf

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Güney Asya -South Asia [email protected]

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