Pakistan remains a key actor in the Middle East. ‘Islamic Alliance’ would arguably have already been admitted dead-born more easily if Pakistan had refused to join. while isolation of Qatar in the Gulf —known as Qatar crisis— would have been much severer if Pakistan had jumped on the Saudi Arabian invitation to downgrade ties with it. Likewise, Saudi Arabia could have perhaps avoided its blunder in Yemen if Pakistan had agreed to send troops to fight in Yemen. The history of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan since the early 1970s demonstrates that its policymakers of all hues have followed a delicate balancing act between Iran and Saudi Arabia and avoided getting trapped in intra-Arab conflicts at all costs. From the 1950s until the end of 1970s, Iran was indisputably Pakistan’s prime partner. As Shah played the role of policeman in the region, he incidentally allayed Pakistan’s feelings of existential threats to a significant degree. This however only gradually changed after the oil crisis and ensuing economic boom in the Gulf after 1973 oil crisis as Pakistani workers and military expertise poured into the Gulf. PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took great advantage of the common interest the Saudis and Iranians had in having a powerful Pakistan against the Soviets and thus, reaped economic, military and political benefit from all sides along the way. Bhutto gleefully called the Gulf ‘the Persian Gulf’ because Iran was a neighbor while the Saudis were far away, all the while continuing to pay lip service to the Saudis’ claim to leadership in the Muslim world, adding useful Islamic color to Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Even after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which put Saudi Arabia and Iran at odds and despite use of Iran’s Shia card against Pakistan, Pakistan continued to play both sides on different issues. President Zia delightedly took Saudi money to bankroll the Afghan jihad and dispatched troops to the Gulf to soothe Arab regimes’ security concerns. At the same time, Zia supported Iran militarily in its war against Iraq, despite being wary about the revolutionary regime’s intentions. Pakistan’s post-Zia policy toward Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait too showed that Pakistan would only take steps short of going all the way to satisfy Saudi wishes. While Nawaz Sharif government supported US-led coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait despite pro-Iraqi popular feelings at home, and sent additional troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the royal family, Pakistani troops never saw the battlefield.