Even a cursory glance at the current state of affairs shows that the Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia is in disarray. Many Muslim countries suffer from political instability and economic backwardness because of autocratic governments which do not represent the aspirations of their people and which have done little for the social emancipation and economic development of the masses. Sectarian differences and perceived clashes of strategic interests of Muslim countries have not only given rise to regional conflicts but also aggravated internal political instability in some of them. The inability of the elites and the intellectuals in Muslim countries to come to grips with the challenges of modernisation have given rise to confused thinking and a wave of religious extremism which, at least partly, is responsible for the monster of terrorism tearing apart the Muslim world. As a result of all these factors, the Middle East is virtually in a maelstrom as evidenced by the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq which have been aggravated by Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The dream of Muslim unity has just turned into a dream with little prospect of its realisation in the foreseeable future unless the governments of the Muslim world rise above their narrow national interests and adopt an enlightened approach, instead of their current short-sighted and counter-productive policies, in the interest of peace, stability, unity, and progress in the Muslim world.

Internal and regional conflicts in the world of Islam have been exacerbated by overt and covert interference of non-regional world powers in pursuit of their own national interests. These powers have often acted upon the well-known imperial principle of “divide and rule” in dealing with Muslim countries, especially those in the Middle East with the objective of establishing their political hegemony in the region and controlling its oil and gas resources. Syria and Iraq are prime examples of such interference by non-regional powers. The foundations for the Palestinian and the Arab-Israel disputes were also laid down by the hegemonic policies of the Western powers. These disputes and the exploitative policies of the US-led West constitute the root cause of the problem of global terrorism. The international community has rightly given top priority to the eradication of this menace. But, unfortunately, the Western powers show scant signs of seriousness in bringing about the peaceful settlement of the Palestinian and the Arab-Israel disputes or to desist from pursuing their hegemonic designs in the region. Ironically, the United States, especially under President Trump, appears to be pursuing policies which can only aggravate these issues, thus, providing more fuel to the fire of terrorism while, at the same time, issuing calls for its eradication.

It is against this background that one should look at the Arab-Islamic-US summit which was held at Riyadh about two weeks ago. The summit was organised with the ostensible purpose of combating terrorism. But the statements made by President Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the summit as well as the Riyadh Declaration issued by the Saudi government at its conclusion left no doubt that its real purpose was to establish a Saudi-led anti-Iran alliance with anti-Shia sectarian overtones. Even Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had to concede while briefing the Senate that the Riyadh summit had widened the sectarian divide in the Muslim world. A few quotations from the statements made at the summit would serve to drive home these points. President Trump accused Iran of fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” and called for isolating it. King Salman called Iran “the spearhead of global terrorism” and called for containing it. The Riyadh Declaration, issued by the Saudi government without formal approval by the participants of the summit, affirmed the “absolute rejection of the practices of the Iranian regime designed to destabilise the security and stability of the region and the world at large and for its continuing support for terrorism and extremism”. Thus, the Riyadh summit instead of serving the cause of Muslim unity, had the opposite effect of accentuating the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and widening sectarian differences in the Muslim world.

Significantly, the Riyadh Declaration claimed that the participating Muslim countries had expressed their readiness to contribute 34,000 troops for the Islamic Military Coalition force, presumably to be headed by General Raheel Sharif, “to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria when needed.” Such intervention would be in direct contravention of Pakistan’s traditional policy to avoid involvement in intra-Arab disputes or disputes between Muslim countries. It is not a secret that Iran and Saudi Arabia are supporting opposing sides in both Syria and Iraq. Our active involvement in Saudi-led military operations in either of these two countries, besides overstretching Pakistan’s military resources, would bring us in direct confrontation with the Iranians operating in those two countries. Our fundamental aim should be to work for peace and unity in the Muslim world and to bring about understanding and reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran rather than taking sides in their disputes.

Normally, the participants of a multilateral conference like the Riyadh summit can dissociate themselves from those paragraphs or sections of its Declaration with which they do not agree by recording formally their reservations on them. Pakistan has not taken such action in the case of the Riyadh Declaration. However, our Foreign Office has a point when it stresses that since the summit never formally adopted the Declaration, there is no need for us to dissociate ourselves from its objectionable provisions. Nevertheless it is important for us, keeping in view our critically important national interests, the resolution of our Parliament of April 2015 and our traditional policy of neutrality in disputes between Muslim countries, to reaffirm our policy of maintaining balanced relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz was able to do so while briefing the Senate last week on the Riyadh summit and its ramifications. We should maintain this posture of balance in relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia in the future negotiations to finalise the structure and operating procedures of the proposed Islamic Military Coalition. Under no circumstances should we agree to the deployment of Pakistani troops in any military adventure outside Saudi Arabia or to the involvement of General Sharif in such a military operation.

From the point of view of our national security, it is vitally important that we maintain and strengthen further our friendly relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Our friendship with one should not be at the cost of our friendship with the other. In view of the enduring threat to Pakistan’s security posed by India, our friendship with Iran is critically important. For the same reason, India would not miss any opportunity to create strains in Pakistan-Iran relations even by spreading baseless rumours. One such rumour, which Indian intelligence agencies have been spreading for some time as part of a disinformation campaign, claims that there is a Defence Pact of 2003 between India and Iran which would allow India to use Iranian bases and ports against Pakistan in the event of an Indo-Pakistan war. This rumour was initially given currency by New Delhi on purpose in 2003 when I was serving as the Pakistan ambassador to Iran. The report was thoroughly investigated by the Pakistan Embassy Tehran and its various attached departments and was found to be totally baseless. The moral is that we should not allow India to drive a wedge in Pakistan-Iran relations by circulating such baseless reports.