THE caution that the Pakistani leadership, both political and military, has demonstrated in the midst of the alarming escalation in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been relatively reassuring.

Following Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s visit to Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the Prime Minister’s Office put out a now familiar-sounding statement expressing support for the Saudi people and pledging to help protect Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. While the Saudi leadership is presumably unimpressed by such seemingly bland statements, it is correct that Pakistan follow this course of moderation.

Where Pakistan and Saudi Arabia can find avenues for cooperation, particularly in the counterterrorism arena, that cooperation should be diligently and effectively pursued.

Where there is a diplomatic and political cost in terms of Pakistan’s other relationships and its own national interests, political and military officials must act with great caution and after thorough deliberation. Gone are the days where private assurances could contradict public statements.

Part of the reason for caution is that the Pakistani relationship with Saudi Arabia goes beyond the ties to a particular ruler and the choices his deputies make. Seen from afar, not all of the present Saudi leadership’s choices appear to be in that country’s own interests.

Fear, more than bold leadership, appears to be shaping Saudi Arabia’s decisions in recent times. For example, it is fairly evident that the mass executions at the start of the year have caused Saudi Arabia a great deal more trouble internally and regionally than whatever gains the regime was hoping to make.

Yet, precisely because the Saudi leadership is sensing such acute danger to itself and its country, there is a need for Saudi Arabia’s allies to act with empathy.

Only long-term allies and friends stand any chance of nudging Saudi policy towards stabilising the Middle East and Gulf countries instead of drifting towards ruinous confrontation. The Pakistani approach of frequent and high-level discussions with the Saudi leadership is a sensible one — with immediate breakthroughs unlikely, patient diplomacy is the only meaningful alternative.

Where the Pakistani approach does need to be shored up though is in the outreach to Iran. Necessary and vital as the ties with Saudi Arabia are, Iran is an important neighbour possibly on the verge of an economic breakout and with influence in Afghanistan and old ties to Pakistan.

Closer cooperation with Iran on a mutually beneficial basis would not only be in Pakistan’s economic and regional interest, it would also help serve as an important example that ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia need not be a zero-sum game.

Moreover, closer cooperation with Iran could potentially offer a reliable and trusted channel of communication between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistani officialdom has long touted the geostrategic importance of this country; in fact, geopolitical relevance is there for the taking — if creative, sensible and courageous diplomacy is practised.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2016

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