Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia and Iran Monday, in an effort to alleviate inflamed tensions between the two regional rivals after the Sunni kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric sparked a divide across the Muslim world, pitting Sunnis against Shiites.
“Sharif will fly to Saudi Arabia on Monday before visiting Iran’s capital Tehran on Tuesday, Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement on Sunday,” reports Reuters.
Reuters learned from government sources that the Pakistan’s “army chief General Raheel Sharif will also accompany the prime minister during the visit.”
Pakistan has sought to avoid taking sides as the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran intensifies, as it deals with its own sectarian tensions at home and works to improve its economic relationship with both countries.
“Pakistan is deeply concerned at the recent escalation of tensions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the foreign office reportedly said in a statement.”The Prime Minister has called for resolution of differences through peaceful means, in the larger interest of Muslim unity, particularly during these challenging times.”
Iranian demonstrators devastated the Saudi embassy in Tehran after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed along with 46 other detainees on terrorism charges, prompting several of the Sunni kingdom’s allies to break off diplomatic ties with Iran.
Kuwait, Bahrain, and Sudan are among the counties to have broken off diplomatic ties with Iran. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran.
“Sunni majority Pakistan maintains deep links with the establishment in Riyadh, which provided Sharif with political asylum in the 2000s after he was ousted in a military coup,” notes Reuters.
Last week, both the Saudi foreign minister and deputy crown prince visited Islamabad, highlighting the close relationship between the two nations.
“Pakistan expressed deep concern at the escalation of the situation and condemned the burning down of [the] Saudi Embassy in Tehran,” reportedly said Sharif’s office in a statement last week when the Saudi officials visited Islamabad, adding, “The Prime Minister called for [the] resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of the Muslim unity.”
“But with a large Shi’ite minority, Pakistan has a lot to lose from rising sectarian tensions,” reports Reuters. “Last year Pakistan declined a Saudi call to join a Riyadh-led military intervention in Yemen to fight Iranian-allied insurgents.”
Pakistan also wants to complete the construction of a major gas pipeline to Iran on its western border.