RIYADH/Islamabad - A top-level delegation from Pakistan visiting Saudi Arabia on Monday called for the opening of a communication line between the kingdom and its rival Iran, Pakistani officials said.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held talks with Saudi King Salman yesterday as part of efforts to ease tensions between the kingdom and Iran, asking him to show restraint and greater understanding in the larger interest of the Muslim world - which stands dangerously aligned along sectarian lines.

The prime minister, who is leading a high-level delegation, is to head today to Tehran where he will meet President Hassan Rouhani and other Iranian leaders to plead them for showing large-heartedness to avert the Muslim world from further falling into Sunni-Shia abyss.

Saudi Arabia and a number of its Arab allies cut diplomatic ties with Iran in early January, sending already tense relations between the rival nations to a new low. Riyadh reacted after protesters burned Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran after the kingdom on January 2 executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. He was among 47 people put to death in a single day for “terrorism”. Most of those executed were Sunnis.

King Salman “welcomed the prime minister of Pakistan and his delegation” to his palace, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The report gave no details of their discussions, which SPA earlier said were to touch on regional as well as bilateral issues.

Pakistani delegation included Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, National Security Adviser Nasir Khan Janjua and PM’s Special Assistant Tariq Fatemi. The visiting team attended a luncheon hosted by the Saudi king where Saudi deputy crown prince, who is also defence minister, as well as the ministers of finance and foreign affairs were also present.

Nawaz Sharif during the meeting expressed ‘deep concern’ over recent escalation of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran calling for resolution of differences through peaceful means in larger interest of Ummah, particularly during these challenging times, according to a joint statement issued by the Foreign Office in Islamabad.

The prime minister recalled Pakistan’s consistent policy of promoting brotherhood among member states of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). He said that Pakistan always expressed readiness to offer its good offices to brotherly Muslim countries, for resolution of their differences through dialogue and reconciliation.

The prime minister reiterated that “the people of Pakistan would always stand with the people of Saudi Arabia against any threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom”.

King Salman appreciated the Pakistani effort. Acknowledging Pakistani’s love for their Saudi brethren, he said his country believes in Muslim brotherhood and wants stronger ties between the Muslim countries.

Latter in the delegation level meeting at King’s palace, both the sides exchanged views on various facets of enduring cooperation with regard to Saudi initiative of formation of the coalition of Islamic countries against terrorism, according to the joint statement. Pakistan deeply appreciated the Saudi initiative and assured the Kingdom of its support.

Earlier, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the governor of Riyadh while Army Chief General Raheel Sharif called on Saudi defence minister Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

During the meeting General Raheel Sharif highlighted Pakistan’s perspective on the Middle East situation. Due to the situation in Middle East the Muslim Ummah is weakening, sources said quoting the army chief. The COAS stressed the need for opening up communication channel between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sources added.

Pakistani delegation arrived in KSA two days after a historic international deal lifted sanctions on Iran in return for a scaling back of its nuclear capabilities. Riyadh fears the agreement will only further embolden Iran, which it accuses of regional interference.

Pakistan is a majority Sunni country but 20 percent of the population is Shia. The country’s parliament last year refused to send forces to help the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Iran-backed Shia Huthi rebels in Yemen.

But this month Islamabad said it “welcomes” a separate Saudi coalition of 34 nations to combat “terrorism” in the Islamic world. Diplomats have said it remained unclear how that coalition will work in practice.

Pakistan has deep military ties with Saudi Arabia and it has long benefited from the oil-rich kingdom’s largesse. Nawaz Sharif himself has close personal ties with the Saudi royal family who sheltered him during years in exile.

A senior military official aboard the plane carrying Islamabad delegation to the Saudi capital said yesterday that Pakistan was in a unique position to mediate between the two countries. “We have a border with Iran, and a significant population of Shia Muslims,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “We also have the largest army in the region that is closely connected with Saudi. And, yes, we have nukes, so we can’t just stand around as tensions mount.”

Prime Minister Nawaz will tomorrow meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at the Presidential Palace, said a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office. On the same day (Jan 19), the statement said, the PM will travel to Zurich to attend the World Economic Forum being held in Davos.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be visiting Tehran on Jan 22, according to state-run Xinhua news service — a sign that the emerging world power also has an interest in calming Mideast tensions.