While deeply caught in a dilemma regarding Iran- Saudi Arab tussle, Pakistan has decided to symbolically become a part of the Saudi-led coalition in the Mideast. Though this decision of the Pakistani government to technically support the 34 states’ formed alliance may put Pakistan in a tough policy choice, yet viewing  pragmatically, Islamabad’s choice of cooperating with the coalition may not be a wrong one because of the emerging security threats from the Daesh/ISIS; and Islamabad’s uncompromising stand against terrorism.

Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, on Tuesday said Pakistan will not send ground troops to Saudi Arabia or any other country after having joined the 34-state Islamic military alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

In a briefing to the National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee at the Parliament House, Aziz said all matters between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been settled.

He said Pakistan will be sharing intelligence with Saudi Arabia to counter terrorism.

A retrospective preview

Under Saudi pressure in 2014, Pakistan came precipitously close to abdicating its non-partisan policy in Syria. With China now adding its name to a list of global powers calling for a political solution in Syria, pressure is likely to mount on Pakistan to clarify its position at the United Nations. And while Pakistan may be on the periphery of Syria’s killing fields, the diffusion of IS and its splinter cells to ‘Khorasan’ training camps in Afghanistan has given rise to considerable strategic anxiety in Islamabad. Of particular concern to Pakistan will be the long-term viability of any prospective anti-IS coalition, in the absence of real and meaningful plans to stabilize an Afghan regime that is already under attack.

The eastern hillsides of Achin, Kot, Haska Mina, and Pachir Agam in Nangarhar province — a stone’s throw away from an embattled Pakistani border — have become strategic IS footholds, where locals are now forced to carry ‘Khorasan’ residency cards. The Islamic State is presently recruiting in as many as 25 out of 34 Afghan provinces, as suggested by a recent U.N. report.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Saudi government surprised many countries by announcing that it had forged a coalition for coordinating and supporting military operations against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. The headquarters of the new Saudi-led coalition would be based in Riyadh.

This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has named Pakistan as part of its military alliances without Islamabad’s knowledge and consent. The Saudis earlier named Pakistan as part of the coalition that carried out operations in Yemen and a Pakistani flag was displayed at the alliance’s media centre.

The Yemen dilemma and Pakistan

In past,Saudi Arabia’s demand that Pakistan joins its coalition against the Houthi uprising in Yemen had put Islamabad in a catch-22 between joining the Saudi alliance and not antagonising its neighbour Iran. Joining the Saudi coalition would have long-term political, economic and security repercussions for Pakistan.

Pakistan is not in a political position to say ‘no’ to the Saudis. Historically, Saudi Arabia has provided Pakistan with generous economic assistance. Millions of Pakistanis who work in the Middle East form the largest part of the global Pakistani diaspora. The foreign remittances sent home from the Middle East are a mainstay of Pakistan’s struggling economy. So, a blunt ‘no’ to the Saudi demand could put the livelihoods of these Pakistanis in danger.

At the same, Pakistan simply cannot afford to commit its troops. Surrounded by a multitude of internal and external security challenges, Pakistan’s plate is full on all sides. Joining the coalition would thus have serious long-term political, economic and security repercussions for the country.

Criticism and important ramifications

The argument–that getting sucked into the Iranian–Saudi power struggle could be detrimental to Pakistan’s fight against home-grown terrorism–takes leverage. After more than a decade of conflict, the situation in Pakistan is gradually stabilising.

Pakistan’s armed forces are already stretched. Forty per cent are engaged in combat positions. A third of the military and paramilitary troops are involved in counter-terrorism operation in Afghan–Pakistan border areas. And the remaining troops are deployed along the eastern Indian border or engaged in a multitude of counter-terrorism-related activities inside the country. So, Pakistan would do well to keep itself neutral and focus on more urgent domestic security matters.

Committing Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia in return for financial assistance will certainly come with a caveat allowing for Saudi-backed Salafist groups to preach their radical version of Islam in Pakistan unchecked. This will only increase the already entrenched religious radicalisation and polarisation in the country.

Joining the Saudi coalition will only antagonise Iran, with which Pakistan shares a 900-kilometre border. It could even result in another episode of Saudi–Iranian proxy war on Pakistani soil between Saudi-backed Sunni and Iran-backed Shia militant groups. After Iran, the second largest number of Shia in the world live in Pakistan.  Iran can use the sectarian card against Pakistan. Shia and Sunni militant groups have been involved in tit-for-tat sectarian killings in Pakistan for last three decades.

Saudi-backed Sunni groups like Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, Jamat-e-Islami and Iranian-backed Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen and the Imamia Student Organisation (ISO) are already protesting either in favour of or in opposition to Pakistan’s prospective decision to join the coalition.

The futurist William Gibson noted, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Already, Saudi Arabia and Iran are killing each other’s proxies, and indirectly are killing each other’s advisors and troops, in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Eastern Province.

The future is likely to look similar. The existing pattern will intensify, eventually spill over in a short, sharp direct clash, and then sink back down again to the level of proxy wars in other people’s territories.

The preferred method of conflict between these states has for a long time been proxy warfare. Since its devastating eight-year war against Iraq, the leadership in Tehran has demonstrated a strong preference for acting through proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiite militias, and Hamas. Lacking a strong military for most of its existence, the state of Saudi Arabia has likewise used proxy warfare to strike painful blows against its enemies, notably against Egypt’s occupation forces in the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war and against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Both these players try to get others to do most of their fighting and dying for them.

Pakistan’s current policy

It is Pakistani government’s policy that it will not deploy its troops outside the country’s borders except for UN peacekeeping missions.

In the past Pakistan has twice rejected US calls for joining alliances against the militant Islamic State (IS) group on the same pretext.

Pakistan, however, has counter-terrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

The IS operations and activities across the Middle East have led to military responses executed by alliances that most of the time rival each other. Syria has been battling IS and other militants with the help of Iran and Russia.

Pakistan is ready to play the role as mediator

Pakistan on Sunday offered its ‘good offices’ to defuse tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran even as it supported the Saudi initiative to establish a coalition of likeminded Islamic states to counter terrorism and extremism. The offer came from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who visited Islamabad as part of the kingdom’s efforts to seek Pakistan’s backing for the recently formed Saudi-led coalition.

Mohammad bin Salman, who was the second high-level official from Saudi Arabia to visit Pakistan in three days, also held talks with army chief General Raheel Sharif at the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Earlier in the week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al Jubeir visited Islamabad.

The focus of the Saudi defence minister’s discussions both at the PM Office and GHQ was on securing Pakistan’s support for the Saudi move to cobble together a coalition of 34-nation Islamic countries as well as current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

To aggravate the situation, any Sunni–Shia rift in Pakistan would provide an ideal opportunity for Islamic State-affiliated militant groups to exploit the sectarian fault lines to gain a foothold and increase their influence in the society. Anti-Shia and anti-Iranian militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah can also join hands with Islamic State in such a situation.

Following meetings with Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday, the Pakistan army issued a statement asserting “that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif struck a more conciliatory tone, suggesting that Islamabad was willing to play the role of mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The issue of sectarianism

Pakistan, which is thought to be home to both the world’s second largest Sunni and Shi‘ite populations, fears inviting the Middle East’s sectarianism to South Asia.

The Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states armed Syrian rebels who are Sunni hard-liners, knowing their anti-Shia views made them more hostile to Iran and more loyal to Saudi interests.

Iran used much the same strategy, portraying the Syrian war as a genocidal campaign against Shia. This helped Tehran attract Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon that would fight for Iranian interests. Making the Syrian civil war as sectarian as possible also ensures that the Syrian government, which is Shia, will remain loyal to Iran.

It’s important to understand that the Middle East is mostly Sunni. So for Saudi Arabia, it might seem like a winning strategy to promote sectarianism, and to align itself with Sunnis and thus force Shia to align themselves with Iran. By forcing a Sunni-Shia divide, the Saudis can make sure they are on the stronger side.

But Iran has used sectarianism as tool as well. While you could argue that Iran was at times backed into this strategy by Saudi Arabia — if the Saudis support Sunnis to isolate Iran, Iran could be expected to back Shia to hold on to some influence — it also pursued it aggressively, for example in Iraq and now in Syria. It did not always begin the sectarian competition, but it was happy to join Saudi Arabia in playing that game.

Sectarianism has always been a double-edged sword for Saudi Arabia, serving short-term political aims while also creating potentially terrible long-term problems for the Middle East and Saudi Arabia itself. Sectarianism did not cause the war in Syria, but it is making that war a lot worse. Sectarianism also did not cause ISIS, but it was a factor, and one in which shortsighted Saudi policies did not exactly hurt.


It fairly that the Daesh factor has been the end-all and be-all regarding Islamabad’s support for the Saudi-led coalition.Pakistan’s current decision may have also been influenced by learning lessons from India’s smart ‘Link West’ approach to the Middle East. But following through on change will require action and sustained commitment, in line with Pakistan’s now well-established interest in regional peace and stability. Given the Islamic State’s steady eastward advance, Pakistan will have to think seriously about rebooting, and executing, an informed Middle East strategy — one that can withstand a new generation of security and diplomatic challenges. The most important consideration is that the Saudi led coalition has ‘no inclusion’ of Iran,Iraq and Syria.Pakistan’s current policy notion does not mean that Islamabad is ‘distancing itself from Tehran’.

The question arises here is that by keeping out these three big stake holders in the Mideast region,how this alliance may fully address the challenges of threats posed by the Daesh/ISIS. To take theses three states into confidence is by all means an inevitable need.As for moral commitment,Pakistan’s determination to defend the sanctity of Holy Kabba,in case if threat comes to Mecca,seems logically advocating.By making the choice of joining with the Saudi -led alliance, Pakistan seems to have been out of ‘diplomatic obfuscation’. But Islamabad will have to keep its balance regarding regional ‘geostrategic and geopolitical imperatives’.