ISLAMABAD — Pakistan will look to play peacemaker between Saudi Arabia and Iran when the kingdom's top diplomat arrives in Islamabad for talks on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir postponed the two-day trip originally scheduled for January 3 after an Iranian mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. The events have exacerbated tensions across the Muslim world and prompted Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia to cut off diplomatic ties with mostly Shiite Iran.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long vied for influence in Pakistan, with both countries forging links with radical groups and pouring money into Islamic religious schools known as madrassas. That has fanned the flames of extremism and fueled sectarian violence in Pakistan, which is mostly Sunni but has more Shiite Muslims than any country apart from Iran.
Pakistan fears that escalating tensions between the oil-rich nations would cause further instability on its soil just as Islamic State is attempting to forge a presence in a country already home to a range of extremist groups. Pakistan's military has gone on the offensive against Taliban militants, leading to a reduction in terrorist attacks that has fueled a surge in property prices in the financial capital of Karachi as investor confidence returns.
"We are at a very crucial stage of our battle against terrorism," Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former Pakistan foreign minister who is now a deputy leader of a key opposition party, said by phone. "We can't afford disturbances as we need all these nations for bringing peace and stability to the region."
The economic stakes make it a particularly tricky balancing act for Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who spent part of his exile after a 1999 coup in Saudi Arabia. Just three years ago, he sought an International Monetary Fund loan to avoid a balance-of-payments crisis.
Saudi Arabia is Pakistan's third-biggest trading partner and the top provider of remittances. Pakistan also shares a border with Iran and wants to import gas to end chronic energy shortages that are holding back economic growth.
Sartaj Aziz, Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, told parliament this week that Pakistan was "a friend of both Saudi Arabia and Iran." He said the government would "try to bridge the divide and improve the relationship between the two countries."
Pakistan's ability to actually do that is very limited, according to Hasan Askari Rizvi, an Islamabad-based political analyst who formerly taught at Columbia University. Neither country is asking for Pakistan's help, and Saudi Arabia in particular will expect its support in return for years of financial assistance.
Pakistan irked Saudi Arabia in April by refusing to join its fight against Shiite rebels in Yemen. While more recently Sharif's government said it would join a proposed Saudi-backed military alliance against terrorism, it stopped short of committing resources and sought clarification from Riyadh's leaders over its role.
Pakistan's military has long been accused by neighbors India and Afghanistan of using terrorists to achieve its foreign policy goals in the region. Sharif called Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday to keep planned peace talks on track after a cross-border attack on an air base that Indian officials blamed on a Pakistan-based militant group.
Pakistan has too many internal issues and wants to avoid becoming entangled in external rivalries, according to Ishtiaq Ahmad, an associate professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University's School of Politics and International Relations.
"Pakistan has to walk a very tight rope as relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia worsen," he said. "It doesn't want to take any sides."