Pakistan Saudi Arabia ties
Pakistan's army chief Raheel Sharif (R) holds talks with Saudi Defence Minister Mohammad bin SalmanPakistan army ISPR

The Pakistani army chief has pledged Islamabad would respond strongly if Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity is threatened. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has, however, struck a cautious note while expressing support for the kingdom, yet again underscoring the difference between the power-centres in the country.

Pakistan's passionate solidarity was articulated when Saudi Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman visited the country. During his seven-hour stay, Prince Salman met the army head and Sharif separately. However, Salman did not hold talks with his Pakistan counterpart Khawaja Asif, who received him at the airport.

Reasserting Pakistan's commitment to its ties with Riyadh, Islamabad's chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif said: "Pakistan holds its defence ties with the kingdom in highest esteem, re-asserting that any threat to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan."

The Saudi deputy crown prince discussed various security matters with the top military authority when the duo met at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Following the discussions, the army chief — who is often seen as a powerful figure in Pakistani politics — went on to say: "Pakistan enjoys close and brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and attaches great importance to their security."

Specifics over the discussions between the Saudi prince and military general have not been made public. There was also speculation that Pakistan has agreed to the deployment of troops in Saudi Arabia although it has not yet been corroborated by any official.

The widening rift between Sunni-inclined Saudi Arabia and Shia-oriented Iran over the execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr has created an uneasy choice for Muslim nations. The situation has forced them to choose sides between the two oil powerhouses, whose regional rivalry is threatening the entire region. A majority of Pakistan's citizens are Sunni Muslims but it also has a significant Shia population — the second largest after Iran.

Nevertheless, Pakistan's premier chose to tread carefully urging both Riyadh and Tehran to ease the atmosphere through diplomacy. The prime minister told the Saudi royal: "Pakistan has historically pursued the policy of promoting brotherhood among member states of the OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation]. Pakistan has also always expressed its readiness to offer its good offices to brotherly Muslim countries for resolution of their differences," according to his office.