Pakistan Caught in the Saudi-Iran Rivalry: An Analysis


The ongoing crisis in the Middle East got more complex with the beginning of Saudi-Iran tensions. The decades-old conflict resurfaced again with Iran’s alleged support to Syria’s Bashar al Assad regime, Saudi airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen and intensified even more after the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the P5+1 powers and Iranian leadership. Tensions emerged when the deal allowed Iran to curb its nuclear program but did not eliminate it, thus, giving rise to Saudi hostilities. This has taken an ugly turn with successive dampeners, the latest being the death of hundreds of Iranian Hajj pilgrims in a stampede at Mecca and the execution of a Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr, by Saudi authorities. The reaction came in the form of an arson attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran, following which Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies cut diplomatic ties with Iran.

Effects of these tensions are being felt across the Muslim population worldwide, especially in South Asia, which houses approximately 30% of the world’s total Muslim population.  The repercussions are in the form of a Shia-Sunni sectarian divide as Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-majority state and Iran, a Shiite one. However, this conflict is not new and dates back to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which marked the beginning of a modern nation-state driven Shia-Sunni divide.


Pakistan is one such state affected by these sectarian tensions. Pakistan has a 20% Shia population, making it a significant minority. Analyzing Pakistani politics is incomplete without the mention of Shia-Sunni relations because in that context Pakistan’s dealings with Iran and Saudi Arabia also come into light. The nation was born after British India was partitioned following the demand of Indian subcontinent’s Muslims for a separate homeland. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the west-leaning charismatic leader who led the Pakistan movement did not live long enough to set up an ideological base for the newly born nation. Following his death, the military stepped up its domination and assumed control with the first military coup by General Ayub Khan in 1958. The Pakistani military started running the administration hand-in-glove with the Sunni Islamist organizations, which repeatedly called for running Pakistan on the lines of puritan Islam. The cause of Islam and an alliance with the United States during the cold war made Saudi Arabia and Pakistan natural allies.

Sectarian divide deepened in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup in 1977 and became President of Pakistan. He is known for his policy of ‘Islamization’, which promoted the radical Islamic doctrine of ‘Wahabbism’. This fostered discontent among the Shias. Pakistan received huge funding from Saudi Arabia to set up thousands of Islamic seminaries to institutionalize the Islamic ideology. This also formed the basis of the ‘Mujahideen’ movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province became a launch pad for radicalizing the youth to launch a holy war against the Soviet Army.

This phase coincided with the 1979 Khomeini revolution in Iran, beginning the exportation of Shiite influence. Recognizing the new Iranian leadership, Zia famously declared that, "Khomeini is a symbol of Islamic insurgence". On one hand, Pakistan enjoyed close diplomatic ties with Iran and went as far as secretly supplying nuclear technology to Iran’s covert nuclear facilities in the 1980s. On the other hand, the Shia-Sunni divide intensified when a Shiite outfit named ‘Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria’ was established in 1979 under the leadership of Arif Hussaini, a student of Ayatollah Khomeini. It came as a response against Zia-ul-Haq’s policy of Islamization. The timing of its establishment and its influence in the decade of 1980s is attributed to Iranian support. This was followed by the establishment of the Sunni fundamentalist organization ‘Sipah-e-Sahaba’ in 1986 and other organizations including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (1996), all being allegedly funded by Wahabi networks operating in Saudi Arabia. Sectarian killings have been rampant in the Gilgit-Baltistan,a predominantly Shia region in northern Pakistan, Karachi (Sindh Province), Quetta(Balochistan Province) and several towns in North-West Frontier Province. The Pakistani establishment has attempted to curb these activities by repeatedly banning many of these organizations but the deep ideological inroads amongst their followers made the task easier-said -than-done. The hostilities had risen to such a level that besides attacking the Shia population, ‘Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’ also started targeting Pakistani politicians. The most prominent example is the assassination of former Prime Minister, Ms. Benazir Bhutto in 2007 in a public rally. The Pakistani Interior Ministry stated that it had proof that Al-Qaeda was behind the assassination and that the suicide bomber belonged to ‘Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’. The organization also confirmed the recent killing of the Home Minister of Punjab Province Shuja Khanzada as a response to the killing of its leader Malik Ishaq by the Police.


In January 2015, the Houthi rebellion reached its peak when their forces raided the presidential palace, thereby ousting the Yemeni President who was a Saudi ally. This prompted airstrikes on the Houthi strongholds inside the Yemeni territory by the Saudi establishment and its allies. Saudi Arabia has also accused Iran of covertly supporting the Houthi rebellion. Tensions emerged in Pakistan when the Saudi establishment asked the Pakistani government to provide armed assistance for its operations against the Houthi rebels. Although Pakistan refused eventually, the hype generated about a possible Pakistani support had already split the nation again on sectarian lines with the Shiite community leaders lodging their protests against such action.  The New Year was welcomed by a fresh resurgence in tensions in the nation following the execution of Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr. Various cities and towns in Pakistan witnessed a public outpour of anger against Saudi Arabia. The Media Regulatory Authority of Pakistan(PEMRA) also issued a warning cautioning the news channels to refrain from debating on issues related to sectarian politics. It is at this juncture that the Pakistani establishment decided to act; to balance its foreign policy and to maintain internal stability.

Saudi Arabia has come to rescue Pakistan in worst of its times, especially providing aid in the times of natural disasters and even providing assistance during Pakistan’s Balance of Payments crisis. Moreover, Saudi Arabia also houses close to 2 million Pakistani expatriate workers, thereby being a massive source of remittances for Pakistan. Both nations share strong military ties, described as the closest Pakistan has compared with any other fellow Islamic nation. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries where Pakistani military missions are deployed. Simultaneously, Pakistan cannot afford  ties with neighboring Iran to deteriorate, with which the ambitious Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project is all set to be rolled out. It is meant to go a long way to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements.

2016 began with the Pakistani establishment prioritizing the Saudi-Iran issue. Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif and the Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, travelled together to Saudi Arabia and Iran to propose a fresh  peace process between the two nations. Their rivalry has especially hit Pakistan very hard, internally as well as externally. The previous years of sectarian instabilities faced by Pakistan are a visible proof of how Pakistan became a theater of Saudi-Iran conflict. This time, a visibly neutral government offering to mediate does provide a sense of commitment on the part of Pakistan as it can not afford to be destabilized again with sectarian violence. This is crucial, particularly at a time when the $46 billion-worth China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is all set to take off. However, only time will tell how effective the Pakistani leadership has been in mediating a crisis, which has put the stability of its domestic as well as foreign policy at stake.