Pakistan’s Juggling Act

To maintain its economic stability and security, Pakistan must stay neutral amid rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Pakistani Sunni Muslims march during a protest in Islamabad on January 8, 2016, against Iran and in the support of Saudi Arabia. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, its long-time regional rival, after angry demonstrators attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate following prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr execution. AFP PHOTO / Aamir QURESHI / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 6, Pakistan’s media regulatory authority warned television channels to be “cautious” while covering the diplomatic standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sparked by the kingdom’s decision to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2, stating that programming should not jeopardize bilateral relations or enflame sectarian sentiment. Even for a regulator that has long been criticized for censoring content at the behest of the government and military, this attempt to shape political debate about external developments was heavy-handed, earning the disdain of Pakistan’s vocal Twitterati. The attempt, though clumsy, revealed Pakistan’s anxiety about juggling bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, its long-time ally, and Iran, its western neighbor, while managing internal sectarian dynamics that are subject to these external ties.

Pakistan’s balancing act will be a key factor in cooling -- or fueling -- tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the only nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country in the world, Pakistan would make a powerful ally in the context of the intensifying sectarian showdown in the Middle East. A clear Pakistani tilt toward Saudi Arabia could even rekindle Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, undermining the gains of last summer’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 to dismantle the former’s nuclear program.

Pakistan would rather avoid appearing biased. It has long claimed that its nuclear arsenal is a deterrent against the growing military might of its eastern rival, India. Pakistan does not want to possess a “Muslim bomb,” let alone a Sunni or Shiite one.

On Jan. 6, Pakistan’s media regulatory authority warned television channels to be “cautious” while covering the diplomatic standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sparked by the kingdom’s decision to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2, stating that programming should not jeopardize bilateral relations or enflame sectarian sentiment. Even for a regulator that has long been criticized for censoring content at the behest of the government and military, this attempt to shape political debate about external developments was heavy-handed, earning the disdain of Pakistan’s vocal Twitterati. The attempt, though clumsy, revealed Pakistan’s anxiety about juggling bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, its long-time ally, and Iran, its western neighbor, while managing internal sectarian dynamics that are subject to these external ties.

Pakistan’s balancing act will be a key factor in cooling — or fueling — tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the only nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority country in the world, Pakistan would make a powerful ally in the context of the intensifying sectarian showdown in the Middle East. A clear Pakistani tilt toward Saudi Arabia could even rekindle Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, undermining the gains of last summer’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 to dismantle the former’s nuclear program.

Pakistan would rather avoid appearing biased. It has long claimed that its nuclear arsenal is a deterrent against the growing military might of its eastern rival, India. Pakistan does not want to possess a “Muslim bomb,” let alone a Sunni or Shiite one.

Pakistan’s preference for neutrality did not quell the urgency with which Saudi Arabia reached out to Pakistan after severing diplomatic ties with Iran on Jan. 3. Its foreign and defense ministers visited Pakistan on Jan. 7 and 10, respectively, and secured a promise from Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif to protect the kingdom against threats to its “territorial integrity.” Pakistan also pledged to participate in Saudi Arabia’s 34-state alliance to fight terrorism, which Riyadh announced in December. But unlike the Kingdom’s other allies, Pakistan will not cut off ties with Iran.

The cautious approach has less to do with nuclear geopolitics than domestic security concerns. Pakistan has the largest Shiite population outside of Iran: They comprise some 20 percent of its 200-million-strong population. It is also battling a surge in sectarian violence. Over 2,000 people have been killed in attacks motivated by sectarianism since 2011. Of the 246 terrorists arrested in the port city of Karachi between 2001 and 2010, over half were affiliated with sectarian groups. The number of sectarian killings in 2013 — 687 — was higher than at any time in the 1990s, when Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in proxy warfare by sponsoring Sunni and Shiite militant groups in Pakistan, respectively.

In 2015, Pakistan launched a crackdown against anti-Shiite militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which claimed responsibility for most attacks against the minority group. The chief and its other top leaders were killed last year in separate “encounters” — exchanges of fire between police and militants that human rights groups argued were extrajudicial assassinations. Pakistan’s National Action Plan to counter terrorism, launched a year ago, also emphasized a crackdown on sectarianism. In recent months, authorities have arrested hundreds of clerics accused of inciting hate against rival sects.

These measures are unlikely to stem deepening sectarian schisms, which pervade Pakistan’s social fabric. According to a 2012 Pew poll, 41 percent of Pakistanis surveyed did not recognize Shiites as Muslims. Members of rival sects rarely inter-marry, despite the fact that this was common practice in the 1980s. Shiite doctors, lawyers, and other prominent figures are frequently assassinated on the streets of Pakistani cities. Many are emigrating: Australia in 2013 offered asylum to 2,500 Shiite families. “We live in constant fear — who will be the next to be assassinated?” asked the wife of a prominent Shiite businessman I recently met in Karachi. The situation is ripe to be exploited by Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominated Iran, if they chose to expand their power struggle into South Asia.

But Pakistan must cultivate Saudi Arabia and Iran for reasons beyond sectarian dynamics. In international forums such as the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Islamabad relies on Riyadh’s political backing, and maintains a close, behind-the-scenes relationship with the Kingdom. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent almost a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia, and maintains personal ties to the royal family. Saudi Arabia also keeps Pakistan’s economy afloat through fuel subsidies and cash handouts — most recently, through a $1.5 billion unconditional bailout in March 2014. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the top destination for Pakistan’s migrant labor force, which provides an economic lifeline through remittances.

On the other hand, Pakistan shares a porous, 565-mile-long border with Iran. Islamabad fears that Baloch separatist militants, who have waged a low-lying insurgency in the western Balochistan province since 2006, will establish safe havens in Iran and carry out cross-border attacks if the two countries do not cooperate on counterterrorism efforts. Energy-starved Pakistan — currently facing a gas shortfall equivalent to 33 percent of total demand — also hopes to tap Iran’s energy resources. Last summer, it welcomed the signing of the Iran nuclear deal with a promise to complete a gas pipeline running from the South Pars gas field in Iran to Karachi in Pakistan (the project has been in the works since the mid-1990s).

Pakistan’s juggling act is made more complex by the fact that public sentiment toward the kingdom has soured in recent years. Pakistanis increasingly blame Saudi Arabia for providing financial and ideological support to extremist seminaries that breed militants who have killed more than 50,000 Pakistanis over the past decade. Last January, a federal minister publicly spoke out against Saudi Arabia for destabilizing the Muslim world. Pakistan’s parliament in April voted against providing military support to the kingdom for its fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

A Supreme Court ban in August against the hunting of the endangered Houbara bustard — a favorite sport of Saudi princes — was well received by the public. When the government asked the court to repeal the ruling, describing hunting permits for Gulf royals as a “cornerstone of foreign policy,” civil society groups lashed out against the subservient nature of Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan will probably need a more robust plan than bird hunting to manage bilateral relations while tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalate. The prime minister and army chief this week visited Riyadh and Tehran to offer to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, though it seems little progress toward reconciliation was made. The domestic consequences for Pakistan — both in terms of the economy and security — are too high for Islamabad not to continue to take a neutral stance. But the regional fallout could be even more significant, adding a nuclear dimension to an increasingly tense sectarian showdown stretching across the Middle East and into South Asia.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

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