THE escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric has intensified sectarian polarisation in the Middle East. This has far-reaching implications for the region and beyond. It is yet another provocative action by the new Saudi rulers which has further inflamed the strategic rivalry between the two countries that underpins the current turmoil in the region.

It is surely not just about silencing an outspoken critic of the regime; the execution of Sheikh Nimr illustrates the kingdom’s new aggressiveness under King Salman and his son, the deputy crown prince who is also responsible for the disastrous military intervention in Yemen. Al Nimr was a leader of the Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted on terrorism charges along with three other dissidents.

Predictably, Tehran’s reaction over the execution was no less inflammatory. The Iranian leaders warned the Saudi regime of “divine revenge” predicting the downfall of the kingdom. The storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran has further aggravated the situation.

Now the cutting off of diplomatic ties has completely disrupted relations between the two rivals, raising fears of their greater investment in the proxy war across the Middle East. With Bahrain and Sudan also severing relations with Iran, the United Arab Emirates downgrading ties and Kuwait recalling its ambassador, the regional fallout of the crisis will get more serious.

Most intriguing, however, was the timing of the execution that came days after the announcement by Riyadh of the formation of a controversial alliance of 34 Muslim countries to fight all manner of terrorism and religious extremism. Unsurprisingly, Iran, Iraq and some other countries were left out from the coalition, reinforcing the perception of it being essentially an anti-Iran alliance. Many of the countries listed in the coalition have already expressed their reservations. It is hard to believe that such an alliance can now take off the ground with the latest Saudi-Iran flare-up.

Rising Saudi-Iran tensions may jeopardise Syrian peace negotiations that had raised hopes of a diplomatic solution.

One of the objectives of the Saudi-led alliance was to fight the militant Islamic State group, but the showdown between the kingdom and Iran has only widened the sectarian fault line and has further divided the Muslim world, thus creating a fertile ground for militant organisations like IS to grow and operate. It is quite obvious that it is Iran and not IS that is perceived as a greater threat by the Saudi kingdom.

With the Iraqi government joining hands with Iran over the execution, there is a big question mark over the proposed alliance really focusing on fighting IS. The crisis has swept aside the illusion that even limited cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh could help end the bloody civil wars taking place in Syria and Yemen while easing tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere. Instead, the escalating tension may well intensify their proxy wars leading to further destabilisation of the region.

A major concern is that the rising Saudi-Iran tensions may jeopardise the Syrian peace negotiations that had raised hopes of some diplomatic solution to end the civil war that has left millions of Syrians dead and homeless. Both the countries are part of the process that also includes Russia and the United States. The negotiations are set to begin on Jan 25. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia and their allies are major players in the conflict. While Iran has been actively supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Saudis are backing the Sunni rebel groups.

Meanwhile, the stand-off also threatens the second round of the Yemen peace talks scheduled for this month. A three-week ceasefire collapsed on Jan 2 mainly due to Saudi intransigence. There is now little hope of all those strings of initiatives succeeding in this state of madness.

This disintegrating map of the Middle East is particularly alarming for Pakistan, worsening its dilemma of how to strike a balance in its policy on these two powerful countries in the region. It is likely that Islamabad will come under greater Saudi pressure to actively join the coalition. Pakistan has thus far neither committed nor rejected the Saudi initiative, but it will be difficult for the government to maintain that ambiguity for long. Tehran would expect us to stay neutral at the very least.

Despite its traditional neutrality in the Saudi-Iran conflict, Pakistan has long been pulled into the proxy war between these two powers. That is also the underlying cause of rising sectarian violence that poses a major threat to the country’s internal security.

It is a well-known fact that the Saudi government consistently backed and funded extremist Sunni organisations in Pakistan. Madressahs funded by the kingdom and other Gulf countries have become the main centres of Sunni militancy as well as the recruiting ground for sectarian organisations. The emergence of IS footprints in Pakistan is most worrisome. The reported nexus between the militant group and outlawed sectarian militant groups has caused the situation to turn more explosive. Yet the government refuses to come out of its state of denial.

Pakistani security agencies reportedly busted an IS cell in Sialkot most of whose members formerly belonged to Jamaatud Dawa, a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba and with links to the Salafi movement historically associated with Saudi Arabia. Even more troubling are the reports of Pakistanis travelling to Syria and Iraq to join various militant groups including IS.

There have also been instances where Shia volunteers have been recruited to fight along pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East. An international wire agency recently reported that the funeral of two Pakistani fighters killed in Syria took place in Tehran. Similar reports about Iranian recruitment have emerged from Pakistan’s tribal regions, fuelling sectarian tensions.

There is a real danger of Pakistan becoming a battlefield for the Saudi-Iran proxy war if timely measures are not taken to stop these recruitments. The ideologically motivated and battled-hardened could become the biggest challenge for the security agencies on their return home. One can only hope the government and the security agencies stop playing ostrich.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2016


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