Saudi foreign minister visits Pakistan as Iran tensions deepen

January 7, 2016 14:57
2 minute read.

ISLAMABAD- Saudi Arabia's foreign minister arrived in Pakistan on Thursday, where he will meet leaders of a government keen to defuse spiraling sectarian tension between the Sunni-majority kingdom and Shi'ite Iran.

Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric on Saturday has inflamed tension across the Middle East and infuriated Iran, Riyadh's main rival in the region.

Several of Saudi Arabia's Sunni allies have broken diplomatic ties with Iran after demonstrators ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Pakistan, which has a large Shi'ite minority, has sought to avoid taking sides as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tries to stem sectarian violence at home and boost economic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is due to meet Sharif, his foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz, and army chief General Raheel Sharif later on Thursday.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said a joint news conference with Al-Jubeir set for Thursday had been cancelled, citing a delay in his arrival for the two-day visit.

Aziz, Sharif's foreign affairs adviser, said that Pakistan was a friend of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and would seek to heal the rift between them during al-Jubeir's visit.

"Pakistan has called for resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of Muslim unity in these challenging times," Aziz told parliament on Tuesday.

The visit comes after Pakistan last month distanced itself from an anti-Islamic State coalition announced by Saudi Arabia, which had named Pakistan as a member.

Pakistan also declined a Saudi call to join a Riyadh-led intervention, backed by most Sunni Gulf Arab states, in Yemen last year to fight Iranian-allied rebels.

"Pakistan can't afford to provide what Saudi Arabia is looking for," said Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based commentator, adding that it had the most of any Muslim nation to lose from a broader sectarian breakdown between Sunnis and Shias.

"The real trick is to find a way to send him (Al-Jubeir) back happy without giving him anything that would upset his Iranian counterpart."

Pakistan wants to deepen trade links with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and improve access to their vast energy resources to fuel its power-hungry economy.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have cultivated a close alliance for decades, and Sharif spent time in political exile in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, after he was ousted in a military coup.

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