Former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif seems set to take charge of the 39-nation military alliance of Muslim states headed by Saudi Arabia. On Saturday, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said that the government had “agreed in principle” to the appointment – which required a little tweaking of rules – although the official procedures haven’t been completed yet. The former COAS’ announcement to join the alliance without seeking government clearance became a political flashpoint and sparked criticism of the general a few months ago, but Raheel Sharif finally seems to have had his way.

There was little the civilian government could have done to oppose the move without publicly opposing the military, a notion it has always balked at. It struggled with elucidating reasons to oppose the move apart from the procedural problems and a general indignation at not being kept in the loop.

However, that does not mean the move is without consequences. The fledgling alliance, dubbed the “Muslim NATO” in the west, is not truly Muslim and the “alliance” aspect of it is also vague. Iran and other Shia countries are conspicuously missing from this decidedly Sunni alliance and it has been viewed by many as a move to counter growing Iranian influence in the Middle East. Pakistan, which has always struggled to maintain a balance between its Saudi ally and neighbouring Iran, might find the task even more difficult with a recent Pakistani general heading a military alliance based in Riyadh.

How the military and government manage to walk that wire remains to be seen.

A lot will depend on the nature of this alliance. The parliament and the people expressed a strong rejection of the invite to join Saudi Arabia’s coalition war in Yemen – Raheel Sharif must make sure that he respects the wishes of the people and decision of the government in this regard. The former COAS has the opportunity to oversee the formative years of this alliance and he must make sure that it does not take a sectarian hue and remains focused on terrorism – in the same way he managed his tenure as head of Pakistan’s army.

These are valid apprehensions on how this appointment will affect the Sunni-Shia divide in Pakistan and beyond, but at the same time it also represents an opportunity for Pakistan to shore up its relations with the Muslim world and to create a group that can participate in intelligence sharing and anti-terror operations in the Middle East. As such, Raheel Sharif must appreciate the nature and responsibility of his role.