Pakistan PM launches effort to defuse Saudi-Iran row

Analysts say country’s policy of neutrality cements its role as a mediator between the two Muslim powers.

Pakistani prime minister meeting Saudi King Salman on Jan 18
According to Pakistani media, King Salman hailed reconciliatory efforts by Pakistan [Handout of Pakistani PM's office]

A Pakistani delegation led by Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, has travelled to Riyadh in a stated attempt to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Sharif met Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Monday, urging him to resolve the differences with Iran peacefully, according to Pakistani media reports.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on “terrorism charges”, including Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia religious leader, and Fares al-Shuwail al-Zahrani, a convicted al-Qaeda leader.

The execution of Nimr spurred Iranian demonstrators into ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran, prompting several Saudi allies to break off diplomatic ties with Iran.

Pakistani analysts say the country’s neutrality in the conflict will allow it to act as a mediator between the two major Muslim powers.

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Sharif was accompanied during the trip by the country’s army chief, Raheel Sharif, who met Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, according to a statement from the Pakistani military media wing ISPR.

The delegation is due to hold talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on Tuesday.

“[The] Pakistani leadership has adopted a rational approach to the crisis up till now,” Zafar Jaspal, a senior political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“I am optimistic … [that] somehow Pakistan will be successful in reducing the tension between the two Muslim countries.”

A Pakistani official, who did not want to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera the Saudi-Iran dispute had left Pakistan in a bind and remaining neutral was the only option.

“[This is] because the Saudis have very close relations with Nawaz Sharif, and they’ve been supporting Pakistan with finance and investments,” the official said.

He said Pakistan was also hoping to restart its economic relationships with Iran following the lifting of international sanctions.

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Hassan Khan, a senior Pakistani security expert, agreed that the only option was for Pakistan to play a mediatory role.

“Iran is a neighbour. Pakistan has a large Shia community, who have sympathisers in Pakistan’s National Assembly, such as the Pakistan People’s Party,” he said.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a “financier [and] a close ally – 1.5 million Pakistanis are working in the kingdom and we share religious and cultural links with them.

“The only option we have left is to remain neutral, and we are utilising that option in a good way.”

Source: Al Jazeera