Saudi Arabia, along with its fellow Arab-Sunni states, is using its sunni brand in order to rally the sunnis around the world behind its back against its rival Iran. On the other side, Iran is playing the same game by using the card of shia-ism in pulling the shias around the world towards its cause of portraying Saudi Arabia an evil power. While Pakistan is traditionally allied with Saudi Arabia, its need for national security and energy security has been pushing Pakistan into changing its foreign policy by moving away from ‘all-out influence’ of Saudi Arabia and taking a more lenient approach with regard to Iran. In other words, Pakistan has been attempting to draw a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Iran.
Traditional Pakistan-Saudi relations
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are decades old friends. Saudi Arabia was at Pakistan’s side whenever Pakistan needed a warm friend. Saudi Arabia stood beside Pakistan in Pakistan’s effort to counter its arch rival India’s major moves, including Pakistan’s nuclear race against India. Saudi Arabia has been literally showering ‘economically weak Pakistan’ with billions of dollars in financial aid.
A protocol was signed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in 1982 following Saudi Arabia’s request for military manpower assistance. Pakistani military presence in Saudi Arabia continues till the day, providing Saudi Arabia support against internal and external regional threats. Naeem Khan, Pakistan's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, stated that Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia's security as a "personal matter".
Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan by its side in order to geopolitically counter Iran for three reasons: (i) Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state; (ii) Pakistan is a strong and big-in-size military power; and, (iii) Pakistan, with a Sunni majority population, is Shia majority Iran’s next door neighbour. On the other hand, Pakistan needs Saudi Arabia by its side for several reasons, but the most important ones are: (i) Saudi Arabia showers Pakistan with economic aid (funds, resources, etc), and (ii) Saudi Arabia provides aid for a large portion of Pakistan’s military spending.
Traditional Pakistan-Iran relations
Pakistan and Iran could not maintain a good relationship between themselves after 1979, when the accession of the Shia-clerics into the driving-power of Iran made the surrounding Sunni neighbours provoked against the newly formed Iranian regime. Pakistan and the Arabian-Gulf Sunni states’ relations with Iran deteriorated drastically. During the last few years of cold-war period, Iran was more inclined to the Soviet Union, whereas Pakistan and the Gulf states were actively helping the West (led by the U.S.) to curtail Soviet influence in the Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan. From that period on, the successive Pakistani regimes and the Iranian regimes mostly maintained distance between themselves. Pakistan’s increasing alignment with Saudi Arabia made the Pakistan-Iran relations worse. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been providing Pakistan with military funding and economic aid in return for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s assurance of staying aligned with Saudi Arabia and also in order to help Saudi Arabia militarily whenever it requires.
Iran’s position after the Iran Nuclear Deal
Iran is a country having land access to multiple regions and access to multiple water ways. Borders with South Asia, Central Asia, the Arab region and Europe, and coastlines with the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Indian Ocean make Iran an ideal location for commercial and geostrategic purposes. Iran, despite having these advantages, had been suffering economically because of the sanctions imposed on it by the international community for decades. These sanctions on Iran have helped the Arabian-Gulf Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, to remain as the major oil exporter in the world without any annoyance.
However, it seems that the developing incidents in this regard are tempting the equation of the region to change altogether. The Iran nuclear Deal was signed, and started to be implemented, by and between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany on the most talked-about geopolitically important Iranian nuclear programme. Under this deal, international economic sanctions against Iran have already started to be lifted one by one. The lifting of the international sanctions means that Iran’s economy would be, in a matter of years, competing shoulder to shoulder with that of Saudi Arabia, which is Iran’s major rival in all aspects. With a booming economy, Iran would want not only to strengthen its military might, but also to increase its political influence over the region and the globe, especially over the Muslim world.
Pakistan’s improving relations with Iran
Through Chinese led Silk Route Economic Belt (One Belt One Route) initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank and other mechanisms, Pakistan and Iran along with China, India and Russia have been actively trying to establish a political, security and economic system for cooperation in order to avoid all sorts of probable conflicts among these countries, most of which have, or previously had, volatile relations with one another.
Both Iran and Pakistan know well that China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s initiative to revive the ancient Silk Route, has the potential to transform the economies of Pakistan and, if accommodated, of Iran, India and Afghanistan. CPEC is most likely to bring peace and prosperity not only in Pakistan’s conflict-torn Baluchistan, but also in the Pakistan’s neighbourhood – South Asia and Central Asia.
Pakistan is now concentrating on neutralizing all the insurgencies inside its territory and on shaping up a business friendly Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy is likely to become huge because of the Silk Route Economic Belt initiative led by China. Pakistan will soon, therefore, need huge supply of fuel-energy in order to fuel its economy; and Iran, after withdrawal of economic sanctions, is now able to supply the energy that Pakistan requires. From Pakistan’s recent moves, it seems that Pakistan is too keen to import oil and gas from Iran in order to enjoy easily accessible energy-supply-destination as Iran is Pakistan’s next door neighbour. That is why, Pakistan seems to be moving away from the traditional ‘all-out influence’ of its decades old ally Saudi Arabia and trying to balance between relations with Saudi Arabia and relations with Iran.
Pakistan is already facing an unpleasant situation regarding Saudi-Iran rivalry, particularly in respect to Saudi led coalition’s war on Yemen’s Houthi militants. Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan for supporting the coalitions’ war through sending ground-troops to fight the Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan responded by asking Saudi Arabia to excuse it for not involving in the Yemeni war. But Pakistan assured Saudi Arabia that it would do anything and everything possible to counter any “direct” threat to Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty. In short, Pakistan denied Saudi Arabia’s request to send its own troops to fight a war side by side with Saudi Arabia, disregarding Saudi Arabia’s heavy investments in Pakistan and Saudi’s backing of Pakistan for decades in its dispute with India.
Pakistan knows very well that sending troops to Yemen would invite Iranian attempts to destabilise Pakistan internally as Iran may take advantage of the facts that (i) more than 20 percent of Pakistan’s total population are shia and (ii) Iran is Pakistan’s next door neighbour. And India, Pakistan’s arch rival, would not fall short of using such a destabilized situation to its advantage — Pakistan is aware of this too. Moreover, an army (Pakistan army) that is already waging an internal war against the militants inside its territory cannot afford to lend its troops to fight a foreign war.
Pakistan is substantially moving away from the West bloc to the East & South bloc.
While Pakistan previously had good relations with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China, it had awful relations with Russia, former Soviet Union, India and Iran. However, shifts in its balance of foreign relations have been taking place. Pakistan seems to be moving away from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in its attempt to coming closer to China and Iran. Even Russia’s relation with Pakistan is improving gradually. Whether good or bad, this shifts in foreign relations put Pakistan into image crisis in two ways. First, it shows that Pakistan never remains a friend (or foe) forever. Secondly, such shifts in foreign relations show that Pakistan lacks the capacity and capability to shape and design a single foreign policy for itself. Every changing government in Pakistan, civilian or not, engages with a foreign policy which is different from that of its predecessor.