Pakistan is caught in the middle of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has large Sunni and Shi’ite populations and needs the cooperation of both Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia is courting Pakistan’s support in its widening dispute with its long standing regional rival. Since announcing a 34 country Islamic military alliance last November, Saudi Arabia has been seeking the inclusion of the Muslim world’s second most populous country and sole nuclear power. A senior Pakistani official said that they were part of the coalition. Following meetings with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Pakistan army issued a statement saying that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territory would invoke a strong response from Pakistan.
Some leaders would prefer to simply be a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran and not involve Pakistan at all. Pakistan is home to both the world’s second largest Sunni and Shi’ite population. This fears inviting the Middle East’s sectarianism to South Asia. Recently a terrorist group of Iraq trained ISIS members were discovered in the major industrial town of Sialkot, meanwhile the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been recruiting Pakistani Shi’ites to join its fight against ISIS in Syria. Following the recent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, one of the largest demonstrations took place in Pakistan’s largest city Karachi.
These developments add to security problems that Pakistan already has to deal with including a domestic sectarian insurgency that has taken the lives of thousands of Pakistani Shi’ites across all four of the countries provences over recent years. There was outrage over the recent massacre of over 100 children in a school at Peshawar, Pakistan. Pakistan has intensified its fights against militants at home. The renewed campaign against militants in 2015 saw a 48% decrease in the number of terrorist attacks according to the respected Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. Pakistan holds obvious appeal to Saudi Arabia because it is a Sunni-majority country that can act as a nuclear armed counterweight immediately to Iran’s east.
Pakistan has a long history of dispatching its soldiers to protect the desert kingdom. They sent thousands of troops there during the Gulf War and in the 1980’s. The two countries also collaborated during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has helped Pakistan’s economy financially on a number of occasions. In 2013 they gifted Pakistan $1.5 billion dollars to ease the balance of payments. Pakistan also has 1.5 million workers working in the Kingdom. But last April Pakistan’s Parliament voted to decline a Saudi request to participate in its coalition fighting in Yemen against the allegedly Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. At the time the Pakistans said they were overstretched at home and unwilling to pick sides between a brotherly Saudi Arabia and a neighborly Iran.
Pakistan’s relations with Iran have been fraught since the 1979 Islamic Revolution swept Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and Tehran drifted closer to New Delhi. In recent years Pakistan has been trying to change its isolation by improving ties with Iran.