As if the task of saving the Nawaz-Modi initiative from being derailed was not challenging enough, Saudi Arabia’s aggressive drive to align Pakistan with itself is likely to test this country’s diplomatic skills to the utmost.

While Pakistan can never be unmindful of its debt to Saudi Arabia, any step that ignores the present-day geopolitical realities, this country’s national interest and the need to preserve Muslim world’s unity will be unfair to both sides. It seems the latest developments in the Middle East are compelling Pakistan to reappraise its policy, in its entirety, towards fellow Muslim states.

Much water has flown under the bridge since the Quaid defined Pakistan’s foreign policy as friendship for all, malice towards none, and special relations with the Middle East Muslim states. Quite a few Muslim countries did not take kindly to Pakistan’s effort to assume, as the “largest Muslim state”, the mantle of the Muslim world’s leadership. While Pakistan’s spirited championship of the North African Muslim countries’ freedom raised its stock in the Muslim world, its involvement with Middle Eastern defence pacts (MEDO to Cento) alienated the Arab nationalists.

The decline of the Nasserites and the emergence of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal as the new voice of the religion-oriented Arab camp gave a boost to efforts to form a well-knit Islamic bloc in which Pakistan was assured of a prominent place.

During the Zia-ul-Haq regime, the strategic understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was cemented with US financial and military investment in the Afghan jihad and Pakistan is still facing the consequences.

Taking sides

During these decades, the regional Muslim groupings – from Arab League to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – have been pushed into the background by individual Muslim countries’ preoccupation with their national agendas. The richer Muslim states – eg Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar – have been looking for closer economic cooperation with countries outside their regional associations and the OIC than with their fellow members in these organisations.

More significantly, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry spilled over from Lebanon to Syria and Yemen. These developments certainly influenced Pakistan’s decision not to get involved with the conflict in Yemen even at the risk of annoying Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, the clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran has taken a serious turn. It is impossible for Pakistan to ignore these developments while dealing with the new Saudi demands for Pakistan’s support.

Pakistan’s dilemma has been compounded by its inability to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While Saudi Arabia’s help to Pakistan, especially in the areas of economy and defence and as one of the main importers of manpower from Pakistan, are fresh in the people’s minds, the history of Pakistan’s friendship with Iran cannot be ignored. The cordial relations with Iran under the Shah, from early 1950s to 1972-73, came under a cloud after the Khomeini revolution but have survived despite Pakistan’s inability to come to Iran’s aid during the US campaign against it and tension along the Balochistan frontier.

So far, as the reported Saudi desire to secure Pakistan’s support for the 34-member coalition against terror is concerned, Pakistan can legitimately point out that as the country that has the longest experience of dealing with terrorism, it should have been consulted before the coalition was formed and announced. Further, it is important that the coalition, that comprises mostly Sunni Muslim states, should not give the appearance of an anti-Iran front as this will divide not only the Muslim states, it will also cause dangerous schisms within each Muslim country. Thus, while offering the Saudis full moral support, Pakistan will be right in declining involvement in the coalition’s military operations without prior consultation.

Alliances of faith

That Pakistan is extremely concerned at the Saudi-Iranian confrontation should be easily understandable on both sides. The question of mediating between the two brotherly nations is, however, quite complicated. The choice of a forum for mediation is not easy.

The first option perhaps could be the OIC but even if the organisation could find a way to take up a conflict between two of its senior members it will be hopelessly divided along sectarian lines and the repercussions in member-states would be extremely grave. Pakistan, in particular, cannot afford any worsening of already tense Shia-Sunni relations.

This dilemma should persuade the Muslim countries of the need to reduce their reliance on faith-based alliances. These groupings have not really delivered. They have not helped in forging unity in political matters and their plans to create institutions to promote closer links in the areas of trade, banking, information services, et al, have not progressed beyond rhetoric.

Moreover, the tendency to look at the world in terms of religious blocs has not only increased misunderstanding between Muslims and the rest of the world, it has also caused regression in the collective thinking of citizens of Muslim states. The way Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was chastised by the religious lobby for referring to the ideal of a liberal Pakistan and even deprived of the power to reply illustrates the point.

Thus, without interfering with efforts of organisations like Arab League, RCD and OIC, to become more effective, Muslim countries may start looking for broader, non-denominational forums for mutual progress and promotion of amity among them and with their neighbours. They may, for instance, revive the idea of an Asian Union, on the pattern of the European Union. The Muslim countries in Asia, nearly half of the total, will not be at a disadvantage in the Asian Union, which will include besides the Saarc countries, the Central Asian republics, China, and Japan. Closer economic relations among the members of the Asian fraternity could help the Muslim countries overcome their sectarian differences or legacies of colonial period disputes. The idea of an all Asia forum may look far-fetched at the moment but it does command attention when we look at the causes of unaffordable conflicts between Muslim states.

This article was first published on Dawn.