By Amna Ansar
After decades of conflict, the two major Sunni and Shia states restored diplomatic connections, making the March 10th peace pact between two of the Middle East’s key regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the most surprising event of the year.
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is multi-faceted and protracted as the tensions between the two began after the 1979 Iranian revolution, when the formation of Islamic state posed a danger to the Saudi monarchy, which saw itself as the head of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia claimed to be neutral during the Iran-Iraq war but covertly supported Iraq. However, under Presidents Akbar Hashemi and Mohammad Khatami tensions lessened marginally as they made efforts to repair Iran’s relations with the neighbors. The Saudi-Iranian relationship became more strained during the Arab Spring in 2011 and the two countries cut diplomatic ties completely in 2016 after Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran to showcase retribution regarding the execution of a prominent Shia cleric Nimr-al-Nimr by the Saudis.
Since then, the rapprochement attempts between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been difficult due to profound enmity, historical grievances, and competition for regional power. However, there have been instances of discussion and diplomatic contact between the two countries, particularly where de-escalation has been a concern. Numerous countries like Oman, Pakistan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq and even the United Nations made attempts at resolving the Saudi-Iranian strife by mediating but failed, yet somehow China appeared as the preeminent expert in orchestrating a peace deal between the two adversaries.
On March 10, foreign ministers of both countries met in Beijing, where China brokered the Saudi Arabia-Iran peace deal that reestablished diplomatic relations, reactivated the 2001 security collaboration deal, promoting peace, stability, and trade in the region. China’s refusal to side with any power grouping acts as a pragmatic approach when it comes to mediation regarding resolution of complex diplomatic issues. The economic consequences of China’s liaison prove to have an irrefutable influence as a peace broker. China’s trade links with Iran were particularly important in the mediation process, as it accounts for around 30% of Iran’s foreign trade and is one of Saudi Arab’s top consumers of oil.
Consequently, China’s increasing influence in the Middle East also points to the decline of Pax Americana. While the US considers itself a stabilizing force in the Middle Eastern politics, it is attributed to the growth of extremist groups in the region and catechized on the security policies. The United States’ engagement in the Yemen war is viewed as a source of rift in regional ties. Because of the disparity between the United States of America’s relations with Saudi Arabia and her relations with Iran, her partiality towards Saudi Arabia became one of the primary reasons why the US was unable to broker the Saudi-Iran peace treaty. Beijing’s increasing influence is also a gateway for regional and economic stability in the South and Central Asian region. This means great things for Pakistan. Pakistan’s geostrategic location and diplomatic relations with Saudi Arab, China and Iran makes her an unexpected beneficiary of the Saudi-Iran Peace pact.
Iran is a powerful and strategically important country lying at the nexus of Persian Gulf, Central and Southwest Asia. Iran holds 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves, is the 4th largest global oil producer and has 2nd largest reserves of natural gas. and is OPEC’s second largest exporter.
Pakistan and Iran share geopolitical complementarity, providing each other with strategic depth in times of crisis or invasion. Pakistan is suffering from a severe energy and economic crisis, which has resulted in complete power outages lasting weeks in certain parts, ceasing operations of various industries. Because Saudi Arabia and Iran are major oil producers, and both have initiated various developmental projects like Saudi Vision 2030 and Iran’s new energy targets in 6th development plan, the peace pact between them can open avenues for Pakistan to collaborate in various energy initiatives, harnessing investment for joint ventures promoting Pakistan’s energy and economic development.
The natural reserves in Iran can be utilized with the assistance of China, or Saudi Arabia, to meet Pakistan’s energy needs. The Saudi-Iran alliance is expected to result in steady global oil prices. Pakistan, being an oil importing country, could profit greatly from this, leading to economic stability and inflation control. Moreover, the conflict between the two key players in the Middle East has resulted in numerous proxy wars, a détente between the Kingdom and Iran that leads to regional stability is immensely beneficial for Pakistan’s internal stability and security by controlling refugee flows, cross-border terrorism, and sectarianism. The regional stability brought in by the peace pact has also accelerated the work on Free Trade Agreement between Pakistan and Iran, enhancing the bilateral cooperation in energy, trade, agriculture, Information technology and various other sectors.
Saudi Arabia provides Pakistan with financial aid whenever the necessity arises. Saudi Arabia employs over 1.5 million Pakistanis, making the Middle East the region with the highest number of Pakistanis. The Saudi-Iran peace pact brokered by China already elevated the level of trust in the region, Pakistan and China being allies benefits Pakistan regardless of turmoil caused by her troublesome internal politics. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have traditionally had a cordial relationship, with Riyadh giving Pakistan oil on credit and investing in numerous development sectors such as agriculture, energy, and infrastructure. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have shared interests when it comes to regional cooperation and conflict resolution, particularly in Middle East. Pakistan also had concerns for Saudi security in the Yemen war, providing Saudi Arabia with the military knowledge and expertise to develop better defense strategies and deterrence.
Pakistan’s geography provides vast opportunities for regional connectivity. The development of infrastructure and Belt Road Initiative (BRI) that Pakistan, China, KSA and Iran all are a part of, would not only uplift the economic landscape of the region but also harmonize the Muslim world and develop cordial ties with the rest of the nations. The Saudi inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a landmark event in the regional politics as Iran, Pakistan and India are already a part of it. This is an opportunity to assist in the resolution of bilateral issues between the states, whether they be economic or security concerns. The diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan constitute a ray of hope in the resolution of the Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India, as the Kingdom has supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir on various international platforms and wields enormous influence in the South Asian region.
According to Saudi Vision 2030, to achieve full employment, Saudi Arabia is expected to require 2.2 million private sector jobs by 2025. The country’s 11.6% unemployment rate is expected to fall to 7% by 2030. With more than half of its population under the age of 25, Saudization is expected to not only add nationalistic spirit in the private sector, but also to lead to a more harmonized society. Islamabad is well positioned to gain from the KSA’s economic changes since Pakistan has a huge number of educated but unemployed youth, and what better opportunity than to work in Saudi Arabia, where the two Muslim populations enjoy a deep relationship? A second opportunity exists for Pakistan in the hospitality business, which has been neglected for almost two decades. Because of the huge reduction in terrorism and the introduction of projects such as CPEC, Pakistan must focus on the burgeoning tourism industry as well as the potential of tourism in Saudi hospitality.
However, much depends on whether Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to strengthen their relations and resolve bilateral issues such as the Shia-Sunni conflict and identity politics, as well as how Islamabad manages to retain the relationship with the two states in her favor.