Islamabad, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have much in common. Each country considers itself to be at the vanguard of the Muslim world, and both are home to predominantly Sunni populations. In spite of their similarities, however, the two countries are struggling to forge closer military ties. When Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in December 2015 that Riyadh would lead a military alliance of dozens of Muslim nations, most of them Sunni-majority countries, Pakistan was surprised to find its name on the list. Even so, it agreed to participate in the alliance, short of committing its troops to fight for a foreign cause. On Wednesday, Islamabad made a surprising announcement of its own: It was reported that Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, refused to accept his appointment to lead the alliance unless Iran was included in the group. Though Pakistan lies to the east of Saudi Arabia and Iran, over the years it has often found itself caught between the two poles of Islamic power. The country exemplifies the difficulty Muslim nations face in maintaining neutrality between Riyadh and Tehran, and Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance is just the latest complication in that struggle.
The stated purpose of the largely symbolic alliance is to combat terrorism, particularly in the Islamic world’s conflict zones — Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. But coming from Riyadh, which views Iran as the propagator of instability and sectarian strife in the region, that objective implies a tacit effort to build a united front against Tehran. This puts Pakistan in a tricky position. As the second-most populous Muslim country in the world, Pakistan can hardly turn its back on Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest mosque. Neither can it risk its relations with Iran, with which it shares a border. For all that Pakistan has in common with Saudi Arabia, it also shares cultural, linguistic and religious ties with Iran. Pakistan has the world’s second-largest Shiite population, although it is a Sunni-majority country. Consequently, staying on good terms with Iran, home to the world’s largest Shiite population, is a priority for Islamabad. Pakistan’s competing imperatives will dash Riyadh’s hopes of assembling an alliance that will not only facilitate the fight against militant groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State but will also help to counter Iran.
Pakistan’s apparent insistence on including Iran in the coalition is disappointing for Saudi Arabia, which has been having trouble obtaining commitments from other countries in the alliance, including Lebanon, Egypt and its newest member, Oman. Beyond their religious affinity, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a history that has compelled Riyadh’s efforts to secure Islamabad’s participation in the alliance. In 2000, the kingdom opened its borders to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he was ousted in a military coup, hosting the exiled leader for several years. Since then, Riyadh has not forgotten the debt that Sharif, who returned to the Pakistani premiership in 2013, owes for its hospitality.
Furthermore, Pakistan — the Muslim world’s only declared nuclear power — boasts the world’s sixth-largest military, an asset for any military alliance. Though Saudi Arabia has sought Pakistani support for its operations in Yemen — a demand it has made of nearly every member in the coalition — Islamabad has refused to commit any military power. For one thing, its army is already stretched thin, conducting anti-terrorism operations in the country’s northwest tribal areas and contending with a perceived threat along its border with India. For another, Pakistan’s parliament voted unanimously against dispatching troops to Yemen in 2015 — a move that, yet again, would risk straining Islamabad’s relations with Tehran. Nonetheless, Stratfor sources suggest that Sharif supported Raheel’s appointment to head the Saudi alliance in part to appease Riyadh. He may have given his endorsement knowing that Raheel would not accept the post; now that the general has demanded Iran’s inclusion in the alliance, Saudi Arabia will doubtless find another candidate to lead the group.
As Saudi Arabia tries to assert itself as a leader of Muslim countries, it will run up against other nations, such as Iran and Pakistan, that are striving to do the same. But in its efforts to form a coalition against Tehran, Riyadh risks alienating even its allies. Regardless of the ties that bind Saudi Arabia to its partners in the Muslim world, and no matter what incentives Riyadh throws their way, it cannot change their imperatives. The cost of committing to a military alliance with the kingdom is simply too high for some of its desired partners, dooming the loose coalition to a purely symbolic fate.