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Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar addresses a press conference in Islamabad on April 28, 2011. – Online Photo

ISLAMABAD: Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar unwittingly conceded on Thursday that Pakistan might be taking sides in a 'neo-cold war' between Iran and the Arab world. Speaking at her first media briefing at the Foreign Office on her recent visit to Saudi Arabia, she said that some of the actions taken by Pakistan in response to the evolving situation in the Middle East and Gulf region and a new alignment with Saudi Arabia were driven by 'national interests'.

“The first thing to protect for any country is its own interest. In the course of protecting your interest, you build, make and break relationships. Pakistan government, let me assure you, follows only its own interests first and on the sidelines we have interests of other countries and other regions to preserve,” she said in reply to a question.

The 'Arab spring' hasn't been much successful in bringing democracy in much of the Arab world, except for the change of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, but has spiked tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Saudi government has been particularly upset over what it sees as an Iranian attempt to expand its influence. Saudi Arabia responded to the developments by tightening its grip on the region and also by putting the Gulf Cooperation Council troops in Bahrain and taking control of political negotiations in Yemen.

The PPP government, once snubbed by the Saudi royals, saw an opportunity that could potentially bail it out economically and ease the energy crisis and hung on to it.

Ms Khar said she did not ask for a free oil facility during the visit, but indicated that Pakistan was hoping for that. “It was not an occasion to bring up issues or requests. There would be a time as and when required.”

Nevertheless, it was amply obvious she knew what was being asked of Pakistan in this Saudi-desired reset in ties.

“We discussed in detail the evolving situation in our region and the broader Middle East. … We should together try to discourage divisive tendencies, however we can. Pakistan is ready to play its humble role wherever required.”

Pakistan has already supported the Saudi position on Bahrain, something to which Ms Khar also referred to in the media interaction. “We continue to adhere to principles of non-intervention and non-interference and we are on the same page with Saudi Arabia.”

The minister highlighted the positives of her two-day trip to the kingdom saying it helped in winning support for financing of Diamer-Bhasha Dam through a consortium of Arab development funds led by the Saudi Development Fund.She was also able to get an understanding that the Saudis would back a Pakistani request for a free trade agreement with the GCC. “In my assessment we should be able to finalise our FTA with GCC at the earliest possible.”

Her visit paved the way for the launch of political consultations between the foreign ministries of the two countries and resumption of a joint ministerial commission of their commerce ministers.

Besides, there was an agreement to initiate consular consultations and develop an institutional mechanism between the labour ministries of the two countries.