Pakistan`s geo-strategic location, a population of 200 million, a growing economy with attractive market, and nuclear armed forces need to demonstrate its will and resolve to take decisions that are solely in its own national interests. For too long it has allowed its interests to be hostaged by both regional and extra regional powers. National leadership and foreign office are expected to conduct diplomacy in a manner that the country remains positively relevant both in the regional and global context.

Over the last few days there have been heated debates in the electronic media and articles in the print media whether the former COAS should or should not lead the 41 countries' coalition with its HQ based at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While the arguments both for or against the decision will surely have their weight, it is clearly discernible that a certain segment within the country is vehemently opposing the decision giving it sectarian tinge, which should never be a consideration where national interests are at stake. Like all its neighbors, and other regional countries, Pakistan is entitled to take decisions that are in our interests rather than based on fears projected by elements with vested interests. Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia have seen both sides over the last few decades. Both have been interacting with Pakistan purely in its own interests hence the ups and downs need to be briefly analyzed.

Pakistan and Iran enjoyed cordial relations in 1950s when their interests converged while remaining part of US framed security economic organizations directed to counter USSR`s interests in the region. Iran supported Pakistan in both its wars against India, though Shah Iran is reported to have refused any support to Pakistan when India detonated its nuclear device in 1974. Pakistan and Iran supported each other on Baloch insurgency in the 1970s, both for their own interests. As a part of the resistance against the former USSR the two countries supported the resistance movement, with Iran engaging ethnic Shia Tajiks and Pakistan mostly focusing on Pashtoon Sunnis. The relations moved downhill with the appearance of Taliban on the scene in Afghanistan during mid 90s when Pakistan recognized the Taliban government, which Iran viewed as detrimental to its interests. India, which was already struggling to expand its space in Afghanistan, primarily directed to neutralize Pakistan`s influence, fully exploited the downside in Pakistan-Iran relations that she continues till this day. Leaving apart Iran`s direct influence and engagement with Pakistan`s Shia population that has negatively impacted our internal harmony and stability, the two countries stand as clear competitors in the geo-strategic and geo-economic arena, which is clearly visible from Iran`s close engagement with our arch rival, India.

Pakistan-Saudi relations have mostly remained cordial for the most part since our independence. The relations warmed up more during the period of King Faisal as evident from naming Faisalabad,  Faisal Mosque and Shahra-e-Faisal Karachi after the king. The two countries' intimacy enhanced in the 70s and 80s when Saudi Arabia supposedly helped Pakistan`s nuclear programme financially and Pakistan opened its training facilities to Saudi trainees besides placing a brigade size force at Tabuk. In early 80s, the two countries joined hands under the patronage of USA to defeat the USSR in Afghanistan. In the face of international sanctions after Pakistan's nuclear detonation in 1998 responding to India’s explosions, Saudi Arabia was one country that extended all help to Pakistan. The relations saw a brief downslide when Pakistan refused to formally become part of the Saudi led coalition in its war against Iran backed Houtis in Yemen. Exploiting its links established during Afghan resistance against USSR, Saudi Arabia continued to remain engaged with its supporter groups within Pakistan primarily to neutralize Shia Iran`s influence in Pakistan thus negatively influencing our domestic environment.

Given the brief analysis above, it is clearly evident that what has impacted our bilateral relations more over these decades are pure national interests. Pakistan therefore need to rise above these ethno-sectarian fears while formulating its foreign policy. I have no doubt that the government and the Army as an institution have gone through the entire process of deliberation before taking this important decision. In my view General Raheel Sharif must lead the 41 countries coalition for the following reasons.

One, it will raise Pakistan`s stature among the member countries and international comity. Two, the enemies’ efforts to isolate Pakistan will be effectively neutralized. Three, Pakistan`s economy will receive greater boost through increased opportunities with member countries. Four, military to military relations with member countries are likely to expand thus creating more opportunities for defense exports. Five, Pakistan being friendly to Saudi Arabia, and an important neighbor of Iran will be in a better position to work for improving Iran Saudi relations using this forum. Six, Pakistanis working in Gulf countries will remain secure besides opening more avenues for Pakistani skilled and unskilled manpower with in the member countries. Seven, the mistrust in Pakistan Saudi relations created with Pakistan`s refusal to join the coalition will be cleared. Eight, greater diplomatic support to Pakistan`s long term issues with India can be expected.

Pakistan has mostly over the past either extended its support too cheaply or remained in a fear syndrome while handling regional and global relations. Time has come that we rise up to our true potential and take decisions that are not only timely and bold but in accordance with the true aspirations of over 200 million Pakistanis.