Pakistan’s latest Saudi-Iran mediation attempt comes against the backdrop of the Muslim world’s long borne divisions on sectarian lines. While hardly any Middle Eastern country is considered part of the first world, wars and ideological conflicts have hampered their progress. The excessive spending on weapons and proxies have pushed more people below the poverty line and fueled an immigration crisis being felt the world over.
Pakistan, however, is bent upon changing that. After Imran Khan was elected Pakistan’s Prime Minister last year, he has been making efforts to bridge the divide. But why him and why Pakistan? The answer lies in Pakistan’s unique demographic structure.
The country has a sizeable population of Sunni and Shia Muslims who have traditionally been living at peace with each other. Although faced with frequent attempts of flaring sectarian division, the security apparatus and social campaigns have largely been successful in maintaining a level of religious harmony.
A direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran would not turn out too pleasant for Pakistan. Pakistanis highly regard the religious leaders of both countries and even have an affection for their political leadership. Any conflict would directly translate into grass-root level tensions.
The latest Saudi-Iran mediation attempt
The efforts started at the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA) session where Prime Minister Khan revealed for the first time that he was involved in the Saudi-Iran mediation. The initial efforts, according to Khan, were on the request of US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
The revelation was welcome news for global doves since the attack on Suadi oil facilities last month had risen temperatures in Riyadh and Washington accusing Iran of upping the ante.
What followed the UNGA efforts by Khan were his back to back visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever since there has been a cooling off of rhetoric from both sides. Reports suggest that because of Pakistan’s efforts, UAE, a Saudi ally, is moving towards “zero tensions” with Iran.
Now Pakistan is looking forward to hosting Saudi and Iranian Foreign Ministers for direct talks. Speaking in a special session with senior Pakistani journalists, Khan said this week that his efforts in this regard have met a positive response.
A major reason for the willingness of the two countries to agree to Pakistan’s mediation is the persona of the Pakistani Prime Minister. A sportsman-turned-politician, Khan has held a celebrity status over the last 50 years. His hobnobbing with the world’s elite started at a young age as a rising cricketer. Later, his charity work in Pakistan and UK brought him close not only to politicians but also with the British Royals.
His stardom has enabled global leaders to establish a quick rapport wherein they are comfortable in dealing with him and, most recently, entrusting him with the job of solving the toughest riddle of the Middle East.
Pakistan’s history of successful mediations
This is not the first time Pakistan is mediating between powerful global rivals. Perhaps the most significant was the establishment of a diplomatic channel between the United States and China in the 70s when its goodwill with both set the journey of China’s opening up.
After ping pong diplomacy was initiated by the US, the Chinese government conveyed through Pakistan that even President Richard Nixon was welcome to visit China. Pakistan then facilitated the visit of Henry Kissinger, the US national security advisor.
What was considered the opening of the US to China, proved to be the opening up of China to the world. Within seven years, China completely revamped its economic ties with the world and has since progressively removed restrictions on foreign investments. Today the country is on track to becoming the next global economic leader.
A recent successful mediation effort by Pakistan has been the brokering of talks between the US and the Taliban in the war-ravaged Afghanistan. Raising hopes of ending the longest war the US has ever engaged in, the belligerents are on the table and are hammering out a peace deal that will ensure the withdrawal of US troops and a guarantee by the Taliban that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used for terrorist activities.
Although President Trump has called off the talks, signs suggest that that’s not really the case. US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad and a Taliban delegation were in Islamabad earlier this month at the same time, raising speculations of their possible interaction. In yet another mark of progress, the latest meeting of top officials from the US, Russia, China and, of course, Pakistan in Moscow was of the unanimous view that negotiations are the only way forward for Afghanistan.
Past efforts of Saudi-Iran mediation
This is not the first time Pakistan will be hosting Saudi Arabia and Iran for talks. During the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) Summit in Islamabad in 1997, Pakistan facilitated a direct meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. For several years after that breakthrough, the Middle East’s tensions did not see a significant spike. Even before that, during the Iran-Iraq war, Pakistan continued to push both sides to give up the fighting.
Pakistan’s past role in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been fruitful in avoiding direct military conflict between them. The man behind the latest efforts has the ability and backing from major international players to effect a thaw in their relations. If he is successful, we may be looking forward to an open and pluralistic Middle East that sees peace after decades of an asymmetric conflict.