Why do Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for Pakistani support?

Saudi Arabia is pressing Pakistan to side with the Kingdom in its spate with Iran. Islamabad is reluctant to do so, given its own serious sectarian tensions.

In the last week, the Saudi Foreign Minister and the Defense Minister have separately visited Pakistan to explain Saudi policy toward Iran and its decision to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran. Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman also pressed for Pakistan to participate actively in the Islamic military alliance he has proposed. The military pact excludes Iran.

The Pakistani press and political elite have urged a cautious response to the Saudi requests. Many have characterized the Saudi leadership as reckless and driven by fear. Last year, Islamabad turned down Muhammad bin Salman’s requests for troops to join the Saudi war in Yemen, with the Pakistani parliament voting unanimously against Pakistani participation in the war. Privately, senior Pakistani officials characterized the Saudi decision to go to war as impetuous and the war as a quagmire.

So far, Pakistani leaders have issued bland promises of friendship and commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia against external aggression. They support the Islamic military pact in principle, but any specific operation will be judged on its own merits.

Funding one-upsmanship

Pakistan has been the stage for Saudi-Iranian competition for decades. According to a recent report, there are 285 Islamic madrasahs in Pakistan that receive foreign funding. One-third get their money from Shiites Iran and Iraq, and two-thirds get donations from Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf monarchies. These schools are sometimes breeding grounds for extremism and sectarian intolerance. In the Punjab, 122 schools are Saudi-backed and 25 get Iranian funding. Saudi money funds most madrasahs in Baluchistan and Peshawar, Iranian money funds most in Giglit Baltistan in the north. Figures for Karachi are incomplete, apparently. Most but not all the foreign funding is private.

Pakistan has been the stage for Saudi-Iranian competition for decades.

This competition for the minds of young Pakistanis fuels the sectarian strife in the country, which is roughly 80 percent Sunni. Responsible Pakistani politicians want to discourage further polarization, and picking sides in the Saudi-Iranian Cold War would be very destabilizing.

Instead, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif offers bland assurances of support for the Kingdom, maintains a robust dialogue with both Tehran and Riyadh, and signals readiness to mediate between the two.