29 May
  • Saudi-Iran are geo strategic rivals in the Persian Gulf (also called the Middle East).
  • In this rivalry Saudi Arabia is a status quo power (hegemon/ leader/ established) while Iran is a revisionist power. How?

Example 1: Yemen (Key fault lines of Yemen) :

  • The biggest problem in Yemen has been 'Trible divide': Southern and Northern tribes.
  • Northern tribes have control over resources, and decision making process in Sana (capital of Yemen) 
  • Southern tribes have been exploited. To get their rights, southern tribes started armed resistance in 2001 under the leadership of Badruddin Al-Houthi.
  • Political divide in Yemen: In 2011 agreement took place between Ali Abdullah Saleh and Mansoor Hadi. The agreement was that Ali Abdullah Saleh (the then President) stepped down and Hadi became the President. Saleh lost the support of the US and GCC. The biggest reason for this loss of support was his failure against Al-Qaeda on the soil of Yemen. US and GCC started supporting a new candidate against Ali Abdullah Saleh - Mansoor Hadi.
  1. Hadi would be the President of the country for 2 years after which he will conduct presidential elections.
  2. But Hadi did not conduct elections, rather continued to be the president of the country. He violated the agreement.
  3. Ultimately supporters of Saleh started armed resistance against Hadi.
  4. Ali Saleh's supporters and southern tribes made an alliance against Hadi led Sana.
  • Yemen, like any Muslim country, is divided on sectarian lines. Majority of the people are Sunni (Salafi Sunni -follow Wahabi school of thought) 
  • From Shias, mostly Zaidi Shia from Iran (Zaid an province of Iran)
  • Houthis are primarily Shias.
  • The divide in Yemen is on sectarian lines as Houthi rebels are primarily Shia and continued fighting against Mansoor Hadi 
  • On one hand Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi rebels made a united front against Mansoor Hadi. This divide is more on sectarian lines.
  • Iran started supporting the rebels while Saudi Arabia supported Hadi's government.
  • The Houthi rebels have been declared as freedom fighters by Iran, and as per GCC, Saudi Arabia, US, Iran has been providing covert military and financial support to Houthi rebels. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia supports the Hadi government. Hadi asked for military support from Saudi Arabia
  • First Air attack by GCC - March 27, 2015, first air strike by GCC
  • Second Air attack by GCC- 4th April 2015 first air strike by GCC
  • GCC also started supporting southern tribal council along with UAE and Saudi Arabia
  • both the countries are pursuing on sectarian ground

Example2- Syria

Syria's background :

  • Kurd population - they have been striving for a separate homeland.
  • Kurd population is spread out in 5 countries: Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia. They are striving for a separate homeland in each country particularly in Iraq and Turkey. These efforts are not united but separate in each country.
  • In 2003 when Saddam's government was toppled down since then Iraq has been shaken and the government's control on Baghdad has been weak, so the Kurds have gotten more autonomy
  • In Turkey the Kurds population has participated in elections, been members of GNA through elections - active on political grounds. The Kurds of Turkey also have armed resistance.
  • The Kurds of Turkey use Syrian territory Qubani to attack Turkey. Turkey military intervened in 2020 against Kurds for this reason.
  • The Kurds of Syria have also been striving for a separate homeland in Syria on political grounds. This is increasingly getting violent since 2011. When the rebel forces FSA - Free Syrian Army and AI-Nusra started fighting against Bashar al Assad' government, the government became more fixated on these rebels. This provided Kurds of Syria with an opportunity to gain hold of Syria.
  • Second biggest problem in Syria has been its political problems.
  • In the year 2000 Hafiz al Asad died after ruling the country for 30 years. Bashar al Assad became the President in the year 2000. He made promises to bring reforms 
  1. Social reforms
  2. Economic reforms
  3. Political reforms
  • But he did not fulfil his promises until 2011. Arab uprisings started in 2011 first in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and then Syria. In the Arab uprisings people started demanding for social rights. Instead of bringing reforms Bashar al Assad used forms which made the protestors violent. The protesters started getting support from GCC.
  • Third biggest Problem ISIS-Islamic State 
  • ISIS roots are from the Middle East, in particular in Iraq.
  • How did ISIS rise in the Middle East?
  1. In 2003 Abul Massab al Zarqavi established AI-Qaeda in Iraq. Buthaving ideological differences with Al-Qaeda he established Al-Nusra. In 2013 a new branch formulated from A-Nusra : ISIS/ Daesh.
  2. ISIS then declared itself as a political entity not fighting under religious lines under the leadership of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
  3. First capital of ISIS was Mosel in Irag.
  4. After expansion to Syria, its capital shifted to Ragga in Syria.
  • The major problems in Syria are Kurds and ISIS
  • Why did uprising take place?
  • lt started in the entire middle east so it started in Syria too. Demands were political. Saudi in particular and GCC got the opportunity to provide funds and weapons to FSA and Al-Nusra.
  • On the other hand Iran started supporting Bashar al Assad's govt because he asked for military support from Iran and Russia.
  • The fight here became sectarian. Syria is a sunni dominant country (64% of the population is sunni and FSA and al-Nusra is a sunni entity). On the other hand, the Shia population (about 22% of the total population) and President Assad is Shia and was supported by Iran.
  • Yemen's importance for Saudi Arabia and Yemen:
  1. The Shia population resides on both sides of the border. If Iran's influence increases in Yemen. Syria is an energy rich area.
  2. Iran supported Houthi rebels become an existential threat to Saudi Arabia.
  3. The Strait of Adain - more than 70% of oil trade is passing from here. So Iran's growing influence in Yemen then Saudi's oil trade passing from Aidan is endangered, therefore we saw that in Saudi's first attack they got Houthis out of Aidan and they had captured Adain first.
  4. US government to continue: this will ensure Iran's influence on Damascus
  5. Iran wants the continuation of military supply in Lebanon through Yemen. Supply Line: - Iran - Iraq- Syria-Lebanon. keep Hezbollah strong it is vital to keep the supply line continued which can only be done if Assad is in power.
  6. In Lebanon there are two types of forces :
  • Government:
  • Carries out jihad against Israel
  • Iran wants continuation of Assad's government in Damascus Saudi wants the opposite and wants elections as this will enable Sunni dominant country.
  • Hezbollah will be weak in Lebanon.

3rd Example - Iraq

  • Saddam's government remained anti-Iran.
  • Decade long war was fought in the 80s between Iraq and Iran.
  • Iraq is the only country that provides ground access to Iran to enter the middle east.
  • Saddam's government was toppled down in 2003
  • Shia dominant government was created as the population was Shia dominant.
  • Saddam Hussain was a Sunni (vice versa situation of Syria)
  • Second Advantage: the rise of Mahdi militia.
  • Supply line to Syria via Iraq got more established. Iran - Irag- Syria-Lebanon. The influence of Iran tremendously increased in Iraq. Iraq is the immediate neighbour of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

4th Example - Bahrain

  • Uprising in 2011
  • Iran has a territorial claim on Bahrain o Uprising against the sunni king

5th Example - JCPOA Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

  • Iran's revival, set back of Saudi
  • Trump's exit from JCPOA benefited Iran
  • In 2017 Trump took US out of JCPOA – caused a set back to Iran and benefit to Saudi

6TH Example - IMCTC - Islamic Military Counter Terrorism

This is a coalition - an organization of 41 countries - Muslim countries mostly Arab and also Pakistan 

Major objective :

  1. to counter cyber terrorism: almost every Muslim country is facing from terrorist organizations
  2. counter terrorist organization: there are majors Muslims countries Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq facing existential security threats, to counter these threats
  3. Counter Terrorist ldeology - terrorists exploited the jihadist ideologies. Military and ideological efforts to build a counter terrorist narrative.

Hurdles in the Way of IMCTC

  • IMCTC is a military alliance of 41 countries led by Saudi Arabia - major financier and weapon provider- the rest of the countries will provide forces and training. This is the brain child of Prince Muhammad Bin Salman.
  • Iran, Iraq and Syria are missing from IMCTC. Iran has declared it as an anti-Shia organization and calls it Sunni military alliance (against Iran) and not a Muslim alliance. sectarian flavor is attached.
  • 2nd Major Hurdle-Who would define the term terrorist'- globally the world has failed to give a unanimous definition to terrorist or terrorist organization. The same applies to IMCTC

How : if it declares Hoti, Mehdi, Hezbollah as terrorist-Iran would jump into a war based on sectarian divide. However, if it declares AI Qaida, ISIS - It would be acceptable for all

Should Pakistan be a Part of IMCTC?

  • Pak is already a part of IMCTC. It is a leading force, the chief force, head of four major departments, ex-militia also involved in it.
  • It provides training because of the expertise of Pakistan in counter terrorism 

Should Pakistan Continue?

  • Pakistan should continue to be part of IMCTC because it provides it an opportunity to enhance influence and security at Umma level.
  • But if IMCTC becomes sectarian Pakistan should opt out because sectarian threat has been the largest threat to Pakistan in the past 4 decades. It would antagonize the Shia population in Pakistan.
  • Iran is the immediate neighbour of Pakistan - The more the tilt of Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, the more Iran would antagonize. Pakistan cannot afford this.


The Umma has been long needing military alliance but face challenges for the acceptance at the umma level

Saudi-Iran (continued)

The rivalry between Saudi & Iran has been strategic in nature but sectarian factors are dominant. Iran promotes Shia lslam, Saudi promotes Wahhabi lslam.

It exacerbates since 1979 with two major events:

  1. Revolution in Iran that ended the rule of King Raza Shah Pahlavi and the government established in Tehran. The outreach of Tehran to the middle eastern world has been two dimensional:
    1. Tehran started revolutions against the kings this turned the Sunni rulers turned against Iran
    2. The establishment of a supreme council/spiritual council that outreached the middle east on sectarian grounds by promoting Shia Islam.
  2. Afghan Jihad and Saudi Arabia's leading role in it. There were three key players in Afghan Jihad: Afghanistan-Saudi Arabia-US. Role of KSA is as follows :
  • KSA played a key role in the preparation of Jihadist literature.
  • Saudi Arabia sent Jihadist to Afghanistan to form Al Qaeda later.
  • KSA started funding and promoting Wahhabi Islam in Afghanistan.

Implication on Pakistan

  1. Pakistan is one the worst affected countries of the sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia 
  2. Elements from both countries have been supporting sectarian groups in Pakistan.
  3. Saudi Arabia has been covertly supporting groups/ outfits in Pakistan like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sippa-e-Sahiba (SSP), Sepha Muhammad
  4. Iran has been covertly supporting sectarian groups like - Sepa Fatimoon, Sepa Zainaboon
  5. These organizations are responsible for sectarian attacks in the entire country. They have been receiving funds from the respective societies and organizations.
  6. Furthermore, there are series of religious seminaries, madrassas and imam bargah receiving funds from respective countries-these are responsible for development of sectarian literature
  7. sectarian terrorism is a bigger threat than general terrorist organizations. The nation is united against AI-Qaeda, ISIS, TTP but the nation gets divided on sectarian lines.
  8. It is established among the policy elite and governing policy making that sectarian terrorism is more dangerous than general terrorism as the former divides the nation on sectarian lines.

Importance of SA & Iran for Pakistan

Saudi Arabia:

SA has immense economic, diplomatic and spiritual importance for Pakistan.


SA has been giving to Pakistan Economic-bailout packages, 4 billion dollars recent 6 billion last time at time of crises, especially in the time of crisis

In coming months SA will be giving Pakistan USD 4 billion, USD 1 billion from SA bank, and a couple of more from WB and China. This will improve dollar stability in the country.

SA is the largest foreign remitter to Pakistan. In the year 2021 Pakistan USD 7 billion + from SA- 2.5 million Pakistani expats diasporas in Pakistan (labour class) works in 

SA is the second biggest investor in Pakistan after China. It will invest in a Petrochemical complex in Gwadar. This will include oil refinery, urea products, diesel operation process, etc. SA will invest in agriculture of Pakistan, in hydro-electrical projects in Pakistan

Diplomatic :

  • It is not only SA, its GCC. Antagonizing SA would mean antagonizing GCC. Example in 2016 when Pakistan refused SA's request for sending Pakistan's military in war in Yemen, UAE was the first country to react. Their foreign minister tweeted 'now we will teach Pakistan a lesson.' UAE second important for Pakistan, 1.7 million diaspora USD 20.5 Billion remittances, Oman -USD 1 billion plus remittances
  • One verses-six that is GCC
  • the more the vacuum space created by Pakistan in GCC, the more quickly India fill sit. 2015 onwards USD 75 Billion agreements were signed between India and SA,USD 24 Billion agreements were signed between India and UAE. This tilt of UAE is obvious, UAE does not support Pakistan on Kashmir issue, the way they used to previously.

Spiritual Importance

Haramain Sharifain is very important for Pakistan like any Muslim country.

Iran :

  • Iran is also an equally important country for Pakistan
  • It is Pakistan's immediate neighbour. Baloch population resides on both the sides of the border.
  • It is always necessary for a country to have a stable relationship with its neighbours. Pakistan has been having tense relationships with Afghanistan, persistence rivalry within India. Pakistan therefore cannot afford to have a strained/ antagonizing relationship with Iran. 

Spiritual Importance

  • Pilgrims (Zaireen) go to spiritual places in Iran and Iraq.
  • Iran wants to be a part of CPEC.


  1. Absolute neutrality for Pakistan is not possible in dealing with Iran & SA 
  2. Pakistan will have to have a tilt towards SA. This will be because of socio-economic importance of SA
  3. But this tilt should not antagonize Tehran. How can this be possible?
  4. Pakistan should increase engagement with Iran too.
  5. Make Iran an official partner of CPEC. After China, Iran will be overwhelmed dependent on CPEC for transit trade. Iran's biggest export market is China and the route has been by sea. We offer a 12000 km shorter distance.
  6. Pak-Iran railway service resumed in Oct 2021. This is a positive development.
  7. Iran provides electricity to bordering area of Pakistan (to areas in Baluchistan on cheaper rates)
  8. Iran-Pak-Turkey railway track should be started as this will be the shortest route.
  9. Pak should initiate defence collaboration with Iran through providing training., conducting joint military exercises etc.
  10. Pakistan is a part of IMCPC and should be a part but if it becomes sectarian in nature, Pakistan should opt out.
  11. Pakistan should play the role of mediator between Iran and SA. In 1997, 2015 &2018 Pakistan successfully mediated between the two countries by defusing growing tension between the two countries. The UN Secretary General has also repeatedly appreciated this gesture of Pakistan. This is not only the good of the ummah but also for Pakistan. The higher the tension, the higher the sectarian rivalry and more will be effects on all Muslim countries with sectarian fault lines.
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