Once again, Pakistan has been dwelling upon ways and means to pacify arch rivals – Saudi Arabia and Iran – to end the decades’ old rivalry in the Persian Gulf. Prime Minister Imran Khan has embarked on a visit to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The visit comes weeks after his announcement to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran on the request of the US President Donald Trump.

Islamabad’s desire of mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not a new phenomenon. In 1997, Pakistan facilitated a meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit. Pakistan’s failed attempt to mediate between Riyadh and Tehran in 2004-05 proved to be a disastrous miscalculation at Islamabad’s end. At that time, India announced its ‘Look West Policy’ to expand its cooperation with the Gulf countries, while Pakistan’s offers of mediation were decreasing its political influence in the region. Likewise in 2016, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif tried to defuse tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, which was not welcomed by Saudi Arabia.

Maintaining balance and acting as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran are two popular myths linked with Pakistan’s Persian Gulf politics. Balancing act is directly proportional to national power. States with strong elements of national power including military, economy and social cohesion can successfully balance their relationship with two warring countries. Unfortunately, Pakistan lacks the latter two ingredients of national power, which restricts its options to openly mediate the Persian Gulf conflicts. Islamabad is overwhelmingly relies on remittance inflow from the region and economic support from the GCC countries. Pakistan’s current remittance inflow from Middle East is 61 percent of its total remittances. Last year, Pakistan signed agreements with Saudi Arabia and UAE to get oil on deferred payments.

Likewise, a mediator must have effective economic or political leverage on both warring parties for successful mediation. Islamabad’s desire to be a mediator might be a popular approach but not a practical one. Stronger states with more military might and economic muscle prefer to stay silent on this longstanding conflict. The Obama Administration failed to convince Arab countries for a softer approach towards Iran after Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) despite being largest trading partner of the GCC countries. Likewise, major economic partners of the Gulf including European Union, China, Japan, South Korea and India often remain silent spectators during the escalation between Tehran and Riyadh. However, Islamabad - which neither has Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the GCC nor enjoys an extraordinary trading relationship with the regional countries often, seems eager to offer its good offices for mediation.

This populist approach is damaging Pakistan’s national interest in the region. The frequent statements of mediation by Pakistan exasperate the ruling Arab elite. This approach has severely dented Pakistan’s Kashmir cause as majority of Arab states have gradually drifted away from their unrelenting support on Kashmir dispute. Since 2016, the Arab countries have started ignoring Indian atrocities in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. They remained silent on killing of Burhan Wani and excessive use of pallet guns by the Indian security forces. In fact, Pakistan felt itself cornered at OIC meeting in Abu Dhabi when former External Affairs Minister of India Sushma Swaraj was invited as guest of honour and despite Islamabad’s protest the organizers didn’t change their decision.   

To conclude, Pakistan needs to understand that only religious and cultural bonds cannot effectively shape international relations. They were productive drivers during Cold War but with the fall of Berlin Wall, new trends and interests have overwhelmed the international politics. In the 21st century politics is driven by geo-economic and geostrategic interests. Through this policy of mediation, Pakistan will not be able to gain anything but annoyance of Arab ruling elite. The policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound will likely further shrink Pakistan’s influence in the Persian Gulf.