Amid growing Saudi concerns about the shifting Middle East balance of power in favour of Iran, Pakistan is walking the tight rope between Riyadh, a close ally, and Tehran, an important neighbour.
Last week, the Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif was a special guest at the largest military exercises ever conducted by Saudi Arabia that were widely seen as a show of political resolve against Iran.
This week, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is heading to Tehran to reassure Iran that Islamabad will not act as Saudi Arabia’s proxy in the Syrian civil war.
In the Middle East, Syria has become one of the major theatres for Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional primacy. Tehran is supporting the regime of Bashar al Assad while Saudis are backing Sunni militant groups trying to oust him from Damascus.
In the last few months, there has been mounting speculation that Saudi Arabia is pressing the Pakistan army to recruit and train volunteers to fight against the Syrian regime. Riyadh’s recent gift of $1.5 billion to Pakistan was seen as a reward for Islamabad’s willingness to provide military teeth to the Saudi strategy in Syria.
It is no secret that Nawaz Sharif owes big to Saudi Arabia. When Gen Pervez Musharraf ousted Sharif from power and locked him up, it was Riyadh that bailed him out and gave him shelter in Jeddah. The Saudi financial carrot followed a series of high level visits by the Saudi Crown Prince and foreign minister to Pakistan.
The House of Saud was deeply distrustful of Asif Ali Zardari who was seen as close to Iran. One of the last political acts of Zardari to was to travel to the Iran border in March 2013 and inaugurate the construction of a natural gas pipeline between the two nations.