Tension rises in Gulf, Pakistan’s policy options are limited

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By Umer Karim

IN the last few weeks, temperatures have been rising on the political scales in the Middle East, prompted by acts of sabotage that targeted oil tankers. In the first such episode, a couple of Saudi oil tankers, an Emirati ship and a Norwegian tanker were attacked near the Emirati port of Fujairah. The subsequent investigation pointed toward the involvement of a state actor — a veiled reference toward Iran. 

On the heels of the first attack, another two tankers were targeted, this time in international waters. These were carrying Saudi and Emirati oil shipments to clients in Singapore and Taiwan respectively. This week, the US officially released video footage and images purportedly showing Iranian navy personnel removing an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of one of the tankers. 

Building a case on this evidence, US secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alleged Iran is the main culprit behind the attacks. In a recent development, Germany, which has otherwise taken a rather cautious approach toward the incidents, also signalled that the evidence suggests Iran’s hand in the attacks. 

These incidents have sharply increased the possibility of a conflict between Iran and its Gulf neighbours but have also put a question mark on the safety of maritime traffic in a very crucial waterway.

The  Arabian Gulf is not a new theatre for such attacks. In the 1980’s, there was a tanker war there between Iraq and Iran when both sides began attacking commercial shipping lanes. Initially, Iraq targeted Iranian oil tankers departing from its ports in the northern edge of the waterway and in retaliation, Iran began attacking Iraqi and Gulf flagged tankers. At first, this led to a 25% drop in commercial shipping as well as amplified oil prices. But gradually, this factor became less significant. 

Iran was highly dependent on the revenue generated from oil exports, so it never actually wanted a complete disruption of oil supplies in the Gulf waterway. That proved to be a major variable in scaling down the impact of this particular dynamic of the conflict.

During this time, Pakistan effectively maintained a neutral stance vis-à-vis the conflict and provided Iran with a much needed import route. Even in the face of US pressure, Pakistan declined to become part of an anti-Iran initiative, though the sectarian nature of the new Iranian ruling regime was not one that Islamabad was necessarily comfortable with. Yet while maintaining this approach, it stood strategically with Saudi Arabia, and a contingent of Pakistani troops was deployed in the Kingdom.

This policy line might have worked in the 80’s but now, the scenario is different.

During the 80’s, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had close ties with India and didn’t rally as much support within Pakistan’s masses. Pakistan’s strategic partner in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, supported Iraq financially but was never engaged itself in the kinetic events of the war. And the threat to shipping lanes remained most significant within the upper reaches of the Arabian Gulf to the Strait of Hormuz while the Gulf of Oman never became a very contentious space among Arab and Persian neighbours. 

A new variable at play has been US sanctions on Iran and a rapid decrease in its oil exports further incentivizing it to derail oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz and beyond.  

Add to all this the recent uptake in Pakistan-Saudi political and strategic engagements — particularly Saudi interest in the port city of Gwadar — which have made Pakistan an essential stakeholder in the maritime security of the region. If the conflict spills over across the eastern side of the Strait of Hormuz to the northern edge of the Arabian Sea, it directly impacts the security and viability of Gwadar port, now a hub of Chinese and Saudi investments.

Realizing the vitality of this section of the Arabia Sea and Gulf of Oman, Pakistan has already been an active participant in the security infrastructure to protect shipping lanes in the Northern Arabian Sea and has deployed PNS Khaibar, a naval destroyer to contribute towards naval policing in the region. This deployment has been mainly directed against asymmetric threats towards shipping in the region but in case of a direct threat from a State actor, Pakistan’s policy makers will be left with difficult choices to make.

The uptake in Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, and in particular recent attacks on a civilian airport in the southern Saudi city of Abha are further testing Pakistan’s security commitments toward the Kingdom. Furthermore, these attacks are also putting in danger the lives of Pakistani residents within the Kingdom.

Pakistan has been treading an uneasy path in between its strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and neighborly engagement with Iran until now. Yet, owing to the vitality of its own southern sea board and the insecurity generated by the spate of sabotage incidents against oil tankers, Pakistan’s policy choices are becoming increasingly hard.

(Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89)