Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The curious case of Pakistan

Pakistan has played a delicate balancing act between Iran and Saudi Arabia and refrained from joining Operation Decisive Storm, to the ire of some, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Politicians in Pakistan are feeling pinched. Business is brisk with two of its largest economic partners and Islamabad cannot afford to offend either Riyadh or Tehran. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, nevertheless, is wearing his heart on his sleeve, so his twin allies know where his country stands. 

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) groups the three Muslim giants. Pakistan declared that it will “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Saudi Arabia. 

Iran is as brazen and audacious as never before. Not content with issuing disparaging statements, the country’s clerical bigwigs are bombarding the international media with gusty rhetoric. “The US and the West are no longer the unquestionable decision-makers of the Middle East that they were two decades ago. Contrary to the situation 20 years ago, nuclear know-how and other complex technologies are no longer considered inaccessible daydreams for Muslim nations of the region,” Iran’s redoubtable Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently extrapolated triumphantly. 

Pakistan is hesitant to get hitched with the Saudi-led military coalition under Operation Decisive Storm that is currently fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pakistan’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution that expresses the “desire that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict”, Pakistani Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said. 

Iran was the first country in the world to recognise the sovereign status of Pakistan with independence from Britain in August 1947. The Pakistanis remained beholden to the Iranians ever since. 

Moreover, Pakistan supported Iran militarily during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. To reciprocate, Iran has been a staunch diplomatic and military ally of Pakistan in the latter’s numerous conflicts with India. 

Predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan is curiously, perhaps, the most pro-Shia Muslim state in the world. The two neighbours cooperate closely on a wide variety of economic, political and military matters, including nuclear technology. Tehran and Islamabad also collaborate on strategy, exchange intelligence information and coordinate policies with regard to Afghanistan. Iran turns a blind eye to the systematic harassment of Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority by Sunni Muslim zealots.

Moreover, the two countries are close economic partners. Iran supplies Pakistan with oil and natural gas. Iran has the world’s second largest gas reserves, second only to Russia. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline is designed to ensure energy security in Pakistan, and Islamabad takes these economic matters into consideration when formulating its Iran policy. 

If Iranian-Pakistani relations are cut and dried, Saudi-Pakistani relations are equally amicable. During the early 1980s, around 40,000 personnel of the Pakistan Armed Forces were stationed in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to bolster regional security and to secure Saudi territorial integrity. 

Nevertheless, there were occasional diplomatic altercations. For instance, high-ranking members of Pakistan Armed Forces expressed cavil criticisms over the Saudi handling of the killing of Shia pilgrims in the 1987 Mecca incident. 

The Pakistani parliamentary resolution expressed the desire that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict while reaffirming Pakistan’s unquestionable interest in Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. The resolution, passed Friday, “calls upon the warring factions in Yemen to resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue”. Yet, Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif declared Islamabad’s “unequivocal support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, meanwhile, flew to Islamabad for a two-day visit to discuss tensions in the region and in particular Yemen, as well as to rekindle old ties. 

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Party has acknowledged that Pakistan is deeply concerned about developments in Yemen and in the entire region. Yemen has a thriving Pakistani population, geographically concentrated in the southern Yemeni ports of Aden and Mokallah, as well as in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Moreover, there are currently at least 110 Pakistanis incarcerated in Yemeni prisons. The ruling PML-N has discouraged Pakistanis from venturing into Yemen to participate in the Yemeni civil war. 

The Houthi, who fought six wars with former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, are now politically and militarily aligned to Saleh. The ruling PML-N concurs with the Pakistani parliament, calling for dialogue among parties to the Yemen crisis.

Meanwhile, the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are footing the bill of Operation Decisive Storm and have long been key benefactors of both Yemen and Pakistan. Some feathers have been ruffled by Pakistan’s position on Yemen. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key GCC member state, lambasted the Pakistani parliament’s decision not to participate in Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthi Ansar Allah Movement in Yemen. 

 “Though our economic and investment assets are inevitable, political support is missing at critical moments,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, blustered. “Tehran seems to be more important to Islamabad than the Gulf countries,” he tweeted.

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