Pakistan’s growing interest in Saudi-Iran détente | By Dost Barrech


Pakistan’s growing interest in Saudi-Iran détente

IN the Middle Eastern politics, 27 March 2021 and 10 March 2023 marked historic occasions where China demonstrated its long-term strategic objectives. Beijing signed a strategic agreement with Tehran to end Iran’s isolation, enhance its foothold in the Middle East and brokered détente between two archrivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The recent Saudi-Iran rapprochement is the only game in the town in regional politics. The resumption of diplomatic ties, reopening of embassies within two months is hailed as a breakthrough of China predicted to embark on a path to de-escalation of the tension and restoring of peace in one of the most volatile regions of the world. There are a few pertinent queries: How does Pakistan view Beijing’s breakthrough? What diplomatic and economic dividends will Pakistan obtain from the Saudi-Iran détente?

Pakistan’s former representative to the UN Dr Maleeha Lodhi argues “For Pakistan, it opens up new diplomatic and economic opportunities. For decades, Pakistan has followed a policy of balancing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, treading very carefully between a strategic ally and a neighbour. Now the rapprochement between the two former rivals means diplomatic space opens up for Islamabad to consider new initiatives and also strengthen ties with Iran”.

The recent development in the Middle East, by and large, will serve the national interest of Pakistan in many ways. The latter became an epicentre of sectarian violence because of the Saudi-Iran rivalry in the aftermath of the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979. The menace of sectarian violence in the new development most probably would end its resurgence. Both Saudi and Iran are the world’s leading Sunni and Shia powers; they can contribute immensely to the proper functioning of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation OIC that remained largely dysfunctional due to deeply embedded hostility of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Consolidation of OIC in the emerging Islamic world would prove helpful for Pakistan in raising the cause of Kashmiris’ self-determination.

China and Iran’s 25-year strategic cooperation agreement inked in 2021 is aimed at promoting a multipolar world and are looking forward to deepening multilateralization, making cooperation efforts for peace and stability in the region and the world at large. Participation of Saudi Arabia in the deal would bring peace and tranquillity to the region. Such a move if it happens will be enthusiastically hailed by Pakistan. China will invest US $280 billion in the Iranian oil and gas and petrochemicals sectors in the envisaged US$400 billion investment. Chinese US$280 billion investment in Iranian oil and energy would require Pakistan’s route for energy supply. Islamabad might get oil and gas from Iran at a concessional rate as Beijing will get Iranian oil at a discount of at least 12%. The Saudi-Iran détente under China’s influence appears to be a positive sign for Pakistan.

In the prevailing international politics, the great power competition between the US and China is in full swing. Washington vis-à-vis Beijing tries to promote democratic values, cementing Quad known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. China has also been reinforcing the “alliance of autocracies” designed to thwart the Quad. Jumping on the bandwagon of China demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is keen to diversify its economy, shunning warmongering policies poised to generate overlapping interest among Riyadh, Tehran and Islamabad.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC aligning with China-Iran deal and the participation of Riyadh in CPEC is likely to become a game changer for the region. Recently, Nawaf bin Said Al-Malki, Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan, met Senate Chairman Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani and discussed issues of mutual interests especially further strengthening of bilateral relations and regional development. Saudi Arabia has allocated an investment package worth $10 billion to set up the mega oil refinery in Gwadar which can be rationalized without further obstacles in the prevailing geopolitical landscape of the region.

Pakistan and Iran historically have ethnic, cultural and religious ties but the former utterly failed to project its soft power due to external pressure. Presently, Islamabad can project soft power by promoting religious tourism, cultural exchanges and public diplomacy. The world’s oldest civilizations such as Indus valley Mohen-jo-Daro and Gandhara be operationalized. AllowingIranian tourists to the oldest civilizations will cement public diplomacy.Pakistan, ostensibly, is well-paced for the projection of soft power but the canon of soft power remains unexploited. Policymakers need to get into introspection and should ponder over the changing dynamics of power and implement soft power in letter and spirit.

Espousing the Chinese strategy of proactive and inclusive approaches is the need of time for Pakistan. Over a decade China signed 15 strategic partnerships with the Arab states and is still trying to promote both economic and soft powers. The environment is ripe for Islamabad too to capitalize on the projection of economic and soft power in the Middle East. The economy is the new form of soft power. Winning hearts and minds through economy and soft power ought to be materialized in the Middle East.

Twice in recent years, the notion of US exceptionalism has been jolted. The first instance was during the COVID-19 pandemic, where China took on a leading role in providing medical equipment and vaccines to other countries. The US exceptionalism once again, is being called into question as Beijing facilitates the reconciliation of two long-standing rivals in the Middle East.In short, what can Pakistan learn from China’s breakthrough? The solution is not difficult to discern, adopting proactive and inclusive approach, improving strained relations with neighbouring countries, diversifying the economy and leveraging the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be crucial in mitigating foreseen challenges.

—The writer is lecturer at University of Balochistan UOB Quetta.

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