ISLAMABAD: The government has offered an in-camera briefing to parliament on a potentially explosive diplomatic conflict in the Gulf region as opposition lawmakers exhorted the Nawaz Sharif administration to play its role to deescalate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The opposition lawmakers criticised the government for its ‘vague and ambiguous policy’ on the crisis triggered by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, over terrorism charges earlier this week.
Incensed by Nimr’s execution, Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad as Iranian leaders predicted ‘divine vengeance’ for the ruling Al Saud family. Riyadh cut off all ties with the Islamic Republic and rallied other Sunni nations, including Bahrain, Sudan and Kuwait, to snap diplomatic relations with Tehran, deepening a sectarian split across the Middle East.
All major world powers urged restraint and Islamabad voiced concern over the escalation of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, warning that “dark forces of terrorism and extremism could take advantage of any disunity in the Muslim world”. It called for resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of Muslim unity in these challenging times.
At the same time, it also deplored the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran as ‘unfortunate and deeply regrettable’. “It is the responsibility of states to provide full safety and security to all diplomatic missions and their personnel,” the Foreign Office said in a carefully worded statement on Monday.
Not impressed with the statement, the opposition sought a ‘clear policy statement’ on the issue that “concerns not just the government but the whole nation”. Subsequently, prime minister’s top foreign policy aide Sartaj Aziz read out a policy statement in the lower house of parliament on Tuesday. “As a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Pakistan will continue to play its positive role on this issue,” he said. “Pakistan will play the role of a bridge to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
Knowing that it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy the opposition lawmakers, Aziz said he would be able to give a detailed statement after the visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Bin Ahmed alJubeir who is scheduled to arrive in Islamabad on Thursday. Initially, he was to visit Pakistan on January 3 and 4 but the trip was delayed due to Riyadh’s tensions with Tehran.
Opposition Leader Syed Khursheed Shah expressed displeasure over Aziz’s policy statement, saying that the prime minister’s aide only read out a written statement from the Foreign Office before the National Assembly. He exhorted the government to work for defusing the worsening diplomatic row in the Gulf region.
Dr Shireen Mazari of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf advised caution saying the issue was very sensitive and the government should have an ‘even handed approach’ on it. Aziz agreed it was a ‘very sensitive issue’ and reassured the house the government was playing a ‘positive and balanced role’. He hoped Saudi Arabia and Iran would restore their bilateral ties through dialogue sooner or later.
Aziz also used the opportunity to list the successes of Pakistan’s foreign policy over the last two-and-a-half years.
Several other opposition lawmakers also spoke on the occasion and demanded that the government take the house into confidence on the issue. They suggested the government immediately send delegations to Riyadh and Tehran to resolve the issue. In other proceedings, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid told the house that the government was making efforts to ensure no program, news or advertisement against our social norms run on TV channels.
In reply to a calling attention notice, he said Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) issued notices, warnings and imposed fine on any TV channel for airing ‘indecent program or advertisement’ within the parameters of its laws. PEMRA has imposed Rs1 million each fine on two TV channels but they managed to get stay orders from the court, he added. “Now it is up to the court to decide the matter.”
Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2016.