Ominous clouds are forming over the Gulf and Pakistan — for a variety of reasons — we must find middle ground and not take sides in the brewing Saudi-Iranian conflict.

There was a cautious note in Sartaj Aziz’s words when he addressed the National Assembly on Tuesday regarding the issue.

A day earlier, the government had been criticised in parliament for failing to outline a clear policy on the Gulf crisis by members of various parties.

Also read: Opposition seeks definitive stance on Riyadh-Tehran spat

However, on Tuesday, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs said Pakistan would work to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with working for “unity” within the Muslim world. In the current climate, this seems to be a sensible approach.

The Tehran-Riyadh row, which was sparked by the execution of senior Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr on Jan 2, and thereafter exacerbated by the storming of Saudi missions by protesters in Iran, shows no sign of being resolved soon.

In fact, on Tuesday, Kuwait recalled its ambassador from Tehran; earlier, following the Saudi lead, Bahrain and Sudan had snapped ties with the Islamic Republic. As the crisis escalates, there has been little in the form of proactive diplomacy from the international community to calm cross-Gulf tensions, apart from appeals for restraint.

Only Russia has offered to mediate. The UN must play a more visible role in cooling tempers as the Middle East cannot afford a Saudi-Iranian conflagration. As for where Pakistan stands, this country’s primary position should be that of neutrality.

Geographic, geopolitical and geoeconomic reasons — along with issues of religious sensitivities — dictate that Pakistan must not take sides in the rivalry. Of course, this is easier said than done. Pakistan has enjoyed good relations with Saudi Arabia for decades while the kingdom has been a major economic benefactor, which means the Saudis will be expecting Pakistan to return the ‘favours’.

However, Iran is a neighbour while this country also shares religious and cultural links with the Islamic Republic, hence antagonising Tehran would be equally unwise. While the Foreign Office has rightly condemned the storming of Saudi missions in Iran, there has been some speculation over Islamabad possibly downgrading diplomatic ties with Tehran. This would be inadvisable.

Should the opportunity arise, Islamabad can use its good offices to heal the rift between Riyadh and Tehran. To safeguard its internal communal harmony and stability, neutrality is the best choice for Pakistan to make.

The government seems to have adopted a logical approach to the crisis up till now. Let us hope — and the days ahead will tell, especially if the crisis escalates — that the state opts to stay the course and refrains from picking sides, regardless of the internal and external pressure to get involved. What is clear is that choosing favourites in an ugly confrontation will bring little benefit to this country.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2016

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