KARACHI, Pakistan — The Saudi consulate here, in the largest city of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is guarded by walls more than 10 feet tall, three sentry towers and multiple local policemen.
Security at the compound has grown progressively in the four years since gunmen killed a Saudi diplomat minutes away from the Karachi consulate, targeting him with a 9mm pistol while he was on his way to work.
Months after the attack, a Saudi source told The Washington Post that his government and those of Pakistan and the U.S. believed the assailants had ties to Iran — like two men the Justice Department charged the same year over a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
The Karachi consulate remains a Saudi-flagged landmark, at a valuable intersection in one of Pakistan’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
But its sensitivity is a reminder of one of the key factors complicating the current tussle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its regional rival: Some of the most important states in the Muslim world, like nuclear-armed Pakistan, don’t want to choose sides.
Their caution frustrates both decision-makers in Riyadh and Tehran and casual observers oversimplifying the fight as a clear-cut divide, an inevitable product of ancient hatreds between the two chief sects of Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites.(Saudi Arabia’s leadership is Sunni; Iran’s is Shiite.)
Pakistan’s case shows why for many countries and most Muslims, the response to the Saudi-Iran spat dominating global headlines cannot be as simple as siding with a Sunni bloc or a Shiite one.
More than 96 percent of the 200 million people living here are Muslims. Shiites make up between 10 and 15 percent of that population — making Pakistan home to the largest group of Shiites outside Iran. The country’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was born to a Shiite family, and the minority sect remains well-represented in elite Pakistani circles, despite years of attacks on prominent Shiites. Officially endorsing one branch of the faith — or suggesting that its concerns should direct national policy — would be unprecedented, given the history of coexistence, and would risk further damaging an already tenuous social fabric.
“Shiites are everywhere, in the army, in the civil service, in the police, so the Pakistani government needs to keep that in mind,” said Mohammed Ziauddin, a veteran journalist and former editor of the popular Express Tribune newspaper.
Figures like Altaf Hussain of the loudly secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a powerful but controversial political party that dominates Karachi, worry about what a misstep would mean. Hussain believes “Pakistan can’t afford a sectarian divide,” a spokesman told The Huffington Post on Thursday. A statement provided on Saturday said Hussain wants to see “sectarian harmony across borders.”
Pakistan also practically needs both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudi kingdom has for decades had deep ties to the military, which has run the country on and off for decades and is once again largely in charge, and top politicians like Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who sought refuge in Saudi Arabia after the army ended his last tenure in 1999. It’s also been a host to thousands of Pakistani workers and a friend to Pakistan in tough times, keeping it supplied with oil in the late 1990s after Pakistan’s first successful nuclear test prompted international sanctions, and saving the Pakistani rupee with a $1.5 billion loan in 2014.
Meanwhile, Iran is key to Pakistan’s hopes for the future. The government said early this year that Iran could become a source of electricity for the power-starved nation and indicated that it was moving forward on construction for a long-delayed gas pipeline between the two countries. Iranian help will also be important for Pakistan’s chief economic priority: a trade network being built with $46 billion in Chinese funds that requires stability in the restive province of Balochistan. Both Iran and Pakistan have worked for decades to limit the power of the ethnic Baloch in their respective countries, some of whom support the creation of an independent Balochistan that would incorporate regions of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
These considerations made Saudi-Iran tensions an obsession for Pakistani politicians and ordinary citizens over the past week, with attention peaking on Thursday when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited the capital.
Jubeir’s schedule showed how well the Saudis know this country: he met first with the army chief and then the prime minister. Sharif, the latter, said Pakistan planned to stand with Saudi Arabia “against any threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty.” His phrasing echoed the Saudis’ justification for the incident that sparked the latest row, their government’s Jan. 2 execution of a Shiite dissident among a group they saw as harmful to internal order. (Others executed included dozens of al Qaeda members; despite its links to some private Saudi backers, the extremist terror group has long called for the overthrow of the current Saudi government, which it and many other fundamentalist groups like the so-called Islamic State see as an American puppet.)
Opposition politicians in parliament spent the week demanding for more transparency on the government’s approach to the fight, asking that parliamentarians have a briefing with the Saudi envoy.
That didn’t happen. Still, the chief opposition players in parliament, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, issued statements about the quarrel that essentially matched the government position, with one adjustment that might help them score political points: a demand that the government work harder to position Pakistan as a mediator. That ambitious goal is unlikely to be met, analysts told Bloomberg this week, because of Pakistan’s limited influence over the Saudi and Iranian governments.
Both the government and the opposition were notably frank as they laid out their logic for endorsing neutrality. Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, spoke of staying out of “proxy tussles” in a Tuesday statement, and Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan used similar language Friday. Such honesty was potentially risky because it assigned blame to both Riyadh and Tehran. At the same time, it signaled that Pakistan’s leaders want the fight to be understood as a political one between governments — not a sectarian fight to the death between communities.
For now, the only nuclear power in the Muslim world is sticking to the path it chose at the launch of the last large-scale Saudi-Iran confrontation: the Saudis’ decision last March to go to war in Yemen (with U.S. support) because of Iran’s links to a powerful insurgency there. Pakistan’s parliament unanimously voted to remain neutral days after Saudi Arabia asked for Pakistani ships, troops and air power.
That approach is not entirely even-handed.
Iran has long been suspicious of Pakistan because of its cooperation with the U.S., Ziauddin said. Though Iran has for decades had its own proxies, including armed groups, in Pakistan, analysts say its influence has waned.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia exerts far stronger influence here than its rival. Pakistan’s army chief visited the kingdom to reinforce the historic military relationship with the Saudis in November, and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and expertise is widely understood to be pledged to the Saudis should they ever need it. The government says it is open to joining a Saudi-led coalition against terror that notably excludes Iran, which is a bone of contention on the Saudi-Iran policy with the opposition. And Saudi money has shaped Pakistani society. Saudi-funded religious seminaries are ubiquitous and Saudi money has supported anti-Shiite Sunni militant groups that have caused thousands of Pakistani deaths, secured political power and served aggressive sections of the Pakistani military establishment by destabilizing India and Afghanistan.
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s vastly influential deputy crown prince and defense minister, visited Pakistan on Sunday. His arrival prompted a flurry of new political and military declarations of Pakistani support for the kingdom’s territorial integrity. Though Pakistani officials repeated past criticisms of Iran’s reaction to the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric, calling it interference in Saudi affairs, it did not promise new anti-Iran steps or blast the Iranians the way Arab foreign ministers did in a separate Sunday meeting in Cairo.
As of this writing, the Saudi consulate in Karachi appears to remain as it was before the spat — just a 15-minute drive away from the city’s equally fortified Iranian consulate.