Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Saudi Arabia last week before heading to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly session. The main purpose of his visit to Riyadh was to garner the support of the Kingdom for Pakistan’s row with India over Kashmir. But just days before his meeting with the Saudi King and Crown Prince, the Saudi oil facilities were struck by missiles. The unprecedented attacks carried out through drones shut down the Kingdom’s half of oil production but significantly sparked fears of a war in the already volatile Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the US have accused Iran of being behind the attack, although Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed the responsibility. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Imran visited Saudi Arabia and naturally much of the discussions remained focused on the brewing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An official handout issued by the Prime Minister Office in Islamabad said Imran briefed the Saudi leadership about the current situation in Kashmir. The statement went on to say that the Saudi King and the Crown Prince expressed concerns over the situation and reiterated their support for the Kashmir cause. Interestingly, the statement carried by the official news agency of Saudi Arabia did not mention Kashmir. The Saudi statement only talked about the attack on oil facility and Prime Minister Imran’s condemnation. This shows that the developing situation in the Middle East has thrown yet another challenge for Pakistan on the foreign policy front. Any conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have serious implications for Pakistan. The major challenge for Islamabad is to stay away from this brewing Iran-Saudi tension. But it is not going to be easy given the fact that Pakistan has a strategic pact with Saudi Arabia, according to which, it has to come to the rescue of the Kingdom if it comes under attack. Suppose if the US and Saudi Arabia launched an attack against Iran, and Tehran retaliates, will Pakistan take sides or stay neutral? And this is not the only repercussion that Pakistan may face. The Iran-Saudi conflict will surely raise oil prices in the international market and this naturally will impact Pakistan’s economy which is already reeling from one shock to another.
Also if current tensions in the Middle East translated into a serious conflict, this will certainly distract the world’s attention from the unrest in India-Occupied Kashmir. And this is something that Pakistan would never want. Since India revoked the special status of the disputed territory on August 5, Islamabad has launched a diplomatic offensive against India. One of the reasons that Kashmir gets global traction is because of the unprecedented converge given by the international press. This naturally has benefited Pakistan’s narrative. But the developing situation in the Middle East can potentially change that proposition.
What has made Pakistan’s work cut out is the sudden deadlock in the Afghan peace process. With tension growing by the day with India over Kashmir, Pakistan was hoping that a peace deal in Afghanistan would help its cause. Peace in Afghanistan would not only have secured the western border but also opened a real possibility of reviving otherwise faltering ties with the US. And an improved relationship with Washington could only enhance Islamabad’s options on Kashmir. It was because of this reason that Pakistan felt more disappointed than any other country when President Trump suddenly pulled out of the peace talks with the Taliban. At a time when Pakistan wanted to solely focus on Kashmir, it now also has to deal with increased instability in Afghanistan as well as lurking fears of a possible conflict in the Middle East. Islamabad never wanted this three-way challenge. These testing times will undoubtedly test the mettle and skills of those sitting at the helm in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2019.