March 27, 2021 and March 10, 2023 are the historic days in Middle Eastern politics in which China showcased its long-term strategic objectives; it inked a strategic deal with Tehran in a bid to end Iran’s isolation, enhancing its foothold in the Middle East and brokered détente between two archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The recent Saudi-Iran rapprochement is the only game in town in regional politics. The resumption of diplomatic ties, reopening of embassies within two months is hailed as a breakthrough by China. However, there are a few pertinent queries: how does Pakistan view Beijing’s breakthrough? What diplomatic and economic dividends will Pakistan obtain from the Saudi-Iran détente?
Pakistan’s former representative to the UN, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, argues: “For Pakistan, it opens up new diplomatic and economic opportunities. For decades, Pakistan has followed a policy of balancing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, treading very carefully between a strategic ally and a neighbour. Now the rapprochement between the two former rivals means diplomatic space opens up for Islamabad to consider new initiatives and also strengthen ties with Iran”.
Suffice it to say, the new development in Middle East, by and large, will serve the national interest of Pakistan in many ways. The former became an epicentre of sectarian violence because of the Saudi-Iran rivalry in the aftermath of the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979. The menace of sectarian violence in the new development most probably would end its resurgence. Both Saudi and Iran are the world’s leading Sunni and Shia powers they can contribute immensely to the proper functioning of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that remained largely dysfunctional due to deeply embedded hostility of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Consolidation of the OIC in the emerging Islamic world would prove helpful for Pakistan in raising the cause of Kashmiris’ self-determination.
China and Iran’s 25-year strategic cooperation agreement inked in 2021 is aimed at promoting a multipolar world and are looking forward to deepening multilaterisation, making cooperation efforts for peace and stability in the region and the world at large. Participation of Saudi Arabia in the deal would bring peace and tranquillity to the region. Such a move will enthusiastically be hailed by Pakistan. China will invest $280 billion in the Iranian oil and gas and petrochemicals sectors in the envisaged $400 billion investment. Chinese $280 billion investment in Iranian oil and energy would require Pakistan’s route for energy supply. Islamabad might get oil and gas from Iran at a concessional rate as Beijing will get Iranian oil at a discount of at least 12%. The Saudi-Iran détente under China’s influence appears to be a positive sign for Pakistan to get Iran oil and gas without Saudi Arabia’s pressure.
In the prevailing international politics, the great power competition between the US and China is in full swing. Washington vis-à-vis Beijing tries to promote democratic values, cementing Quad known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. China has also been reinforcing “alliance of autocracies” designed to thwart the Quad. Jumping on the bandwagon of China demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is keen to diversify economy, shunning warmongering policy poised to generating overlapping interest among Riyadh, Tehran and Islamabad.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aligning with China–Iran deal and the participation of Riyadh in CPEC is likely to become a game changer for the region. In his recent visit to Pakistan, Nawaf bin Said Al-Malki, the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan met Senate Chairman Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani and discussed issues of mutual interests especially further strengthening of bilateral relations and regional development. Saudi Arabia has allocated an investment package worth $10 billion to set up the mega oil refinery in Gwadar which can be rationalised without further obstacles in the prevailing geopolitical landscape of the region.
Pakistan and Iran historically have ethnic, cultural and religious ties but the former remained utterly failed to project its soft power due to external pressure. Presently, Islamabad can project soft power by promoting religious tourism, cultural exchanges, and public diplomacy. The world’s oldest civilisations such as Indus valley Mohen-jo-Daro and Gandhara be operationalised. Allowing Iranian tourists to the oldest civilisations will cement public diplomacy. Pakistan, ostensibly, is well-paced for the projection of soft power but the canon of soft power remained unexploited. Policymakers need to get into introspection and should ponder over the changing dynamics of power and implement soft power in letter and spirit.
Espousing the Chinese strategy of proactive and inclusive approaches is the need of time for Pakistan. Over a decade China signed 15 strategic partnerships with the Arab states and still trying to promote both economic and soft powers. The environment is ripe for Islamabad too to capitalise on the projection of economic and soft power in the Middle East. The economy is the new form of soft power. Winning hearts and minds through economy and soft power ought to be materialised in the Middle East.
Twice in recent years, the notion of American exceptionalism has been shaken. The first instance was during the Covid-19 pandemic, where China took on a leading role in providing medical equipment and vaccines to other countries. The American exceptionalism once again, is being called into question as Beijing facilitates the reconciliation of two long-standing rivals in the Middle East. In short, what can Pakistan learn from China’s breakthrough? The solution is not difficult to discern, adopting proactive and inclusive approach, improving strained relations with neighbouring countries, diversifying the economy and leveraging the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be crucial in mitigating foreseen challenges.