Saudi Arabia is back, knocking on Pakistan’s door. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s son and deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, arrived separately in the early days of the new year to persuade Islamabad to join hands with Riyadh in confronting regional security threats. That is, the Saudis want Pakistan’s support against Iran.
From Riyadh’s perspective, Pakistan, which is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population and is the only nuclear-armed Islamic country, provides much needed critical mass. The Saudis wish to see Islamabad publicly commit itself to the 34-nation, Saudi-led antiterrorism coalition that Riyadh launched in December. But Riyadh would settle for Pakistan issuing stronger and more frequent diplomatic gestures of support for Saudi regional policies. Such support has been hard to win, however. In April 2015, when Riyadh sought Islamabad’s military assistance in its newly launched war in Yemen, Saudi officials went home empty-handed.
This time, Jubeir and bin Salman heard two different messages from Islamabad. The head of the Pakistani military, General Raheel Sharif, vowed a “strong response” to any threat to Saudi security. The other message was from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His emphasis was on a potential role for Pakistan as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sensibly sidestepping the burden of having to pick sides.
History reveals that it is Sharif’s promise of neutrality—bordering on opportunism—that most likely will shape Islamabad’s attitude toward this latest Iranian-Saudi spat. Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has often found itself in a position to choose between the Iranians and the Arabs. More often than not, Islamabad has managed to wriggle free. In fact, it has repeatedly benefited from being in that position in the first place.
What history also shows is that it is cold geopolitical calculations—not sectarian sympathies—that will fashion Islamabad’s approach. Today, Pakistan has much closer ties to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and particularly Saudi