THE most significant strategic dimension of the Middle Eastern conflict is linked to the region’s sectarian mire and its political manifestations, including violent ones. Though not a party to it, Pakistan feels the heat of the conflict, mainly in terms of how to adopt a neutral position to impede its sectarian consequences at home.
In a diverse and politically-charged religious landscape, it has always been a challenge for the country to maintain sectarian harmony during times of conflict in the Middle East. The fear of sectarian outburst limits Pakistan’s strategic choices, thus cautioning it from taking outright sides. That is despite the fact that Pakistan has invested a lot in the Middle East in pursuit of its Muslim identity and in order to gain geostrategic, diplomatic and economic support from the region. Though it has gained some economic advantages out of this, it may come with a political cost.
The assassination of the Iranian top commander Qassem Soleimani by the US military has once again put Pakistan to the challenge of holding a neutral position. For the moment, the country has successfully conveyed its message of upholding neutrality, but the challenge will become increasingly cumbersome if the ongoing US-Iran tension escalates into an all-out war.
The so-called Muslim world is not coherent in terms of social, cultural and intellectual trends — and rightly so — because it is diverse in all these terms, but is affected by political developments in the Middle East. In fact, a political change in the region alerts the Muslim-majority countries and societies to its likely impact in the forms of religious radicalism and sectarian divide. It also adds weight to the argument that extremism is a political phenomenon, which feeds on religious sentiments. It is ironic that Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, have deepened their political influences in Muslim societies on sectarian lines and also support their proxies there. These proxies promote the interests of these states by exploiting the sectarian sentiments of the masses. They not only divide societies along narrow religious and sectarian lines, but also promote intolerance against religious minorities and cultivate conspiratorial mindsets.
Pakistan feels the heat of the conflict, mainly in terms of how to adopt a neutral position
For Pakistan, tensions in the Middle East become more crucial because of its geographical position and strong military credentials.
Iran remains suspicious that, in case of any significant conflict with the US or its allies in the Middle East, Pakistan may choose an opposite side. Iran has nurtured its influence in Pakistan not only on sectarian lines but also by capturing the energy market in Balochistan and adjacent districts of Sindh and south Punjab. Balochistan largely depends on illegal and legal oil supplies from Iran; several other products ranging from grocery to construction materials also come from Iran. The whole paraphernalia of the informal economy flourishes because of weak economic structures and governance. Recently, Iran has made some inroads into Pakistani Baloch separatist groups, which has increased its bargaining position to balance its political relations with Pakistan.
Iran is not the only country to use such tactics to create a political balance with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and its close allies also use financial and economic incentives to win the country’s political support. The only difference is the modus operandi; Iran cannot offer cash to Pakistan, which Pakistan’s economy needs the most, but it has found alternative ways to gain economic and political leverage.
As far as proxies are concerned, Middle Eastern and South Asian states have mastered this strategy and nurtured their ‘assets’ on the basis of a strategic notion that proxies are the cheapest alternatives available to politically weak states. However, sectarian proxies are extremely lethal, and Pakistan has suffered a lot at the hands of such proxy wars fought by rival Middle Eastern states. Even in 2019, when overall terrorism-related incidents were on the decline, there were 14 sectarian-related attacks (some of them high impact) that took place.
Pakistan maintained its historically neutral posture when it decided not to send its troops to aid the Saudis in Yemen. Nevertheless, Pakistan has found other ways to support its Middle Eastern ally, mainly in military and political terms. Retired Gen Raheel Sharif’s presence in Riyadh is an indication of Pakistan’s strategic priority. Similarly, Prime Minister Imran Khan induced embarrassment in declining the invitation to attend the recent Kuala Lumpur summit — which he himself proposed — to please Riyadh.
Yet Pakistan cannot complicate its relationship with Iran by becoming party in a Middle Eastern conflict, mainly because of its geopolitical proximity with Iran and the fear of sectarian discord and violence. Some would argue that Pakistan’s position vis-à-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot be called an absolute neutral position. Yet, most hold that this posture of neutrality has significance in political and diplomatic terms.
Pakistan has its own geopolitical and economic challenges, with India-held Kashmir and Afghanistan being at the top. It is trying to gain the international community’s political and diplomatic support through its renewed approach towards the Afghan reconciliation process, which is crucial for its economy as well as its stance on Kashmir. Interestingly, Pakistan failed to get full support from its Arab friends after India revoked the special status of held Kashmir. The Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE, showed a pragmatic approach, but they would always expect unconditional support from Pakistan whenever required.
Arguably, a financially stable Pakistan would have more freedom to prioritise its strategic interests. But the country also needs to prioritise dealing with its challenges of sectarian divisions, intolerance and extremism. It is imperative not only to improve social cohesion in the polity, but also to come out of the geopolitical trap of the Arabs and Iran. It will, however, require regulating financial flows of religious institutions in the country and adopting a zero-tolerance approach against groups that exploit sectarian sensitivities for the political purposes of ‘others’.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2020