TORONTO: Pakistan managed to avoid this lethal bullet of extremely delicate regional powerplay far too long. It managed to keep Iran neutral while playing Lolita to Saudi Arabia, accepting all goodies the Saudi generosity showered upon her.

Apart from enjoying a long line of credits on oil payments, the Pakistani military and political elite kept lining their pockets during the Afghan and Taliban wars starting in 1979 when the Saudis matched dollar for dollar the US aid to Pakistan. Three years back when Nawaz Sharif came to power Riyadh sent a ‘gift’ of $1.5 billion to Pakistan without mentioning what it was for. The Sharifs very ecstatically indicated that this was a windfall from their personal goodwill with the king. They took pains to explain that it was a gift and not a loan.

However, the moment of truth was approaching fast for Pakistani military and the Sharifs. Saudis built a Muslim rag-tag army to deter Iranian ambitions in Iran and for the first time postured as a military power in the region. The Saudi moves in Yemen brought the moment of decision a bit too early and Pakistan, instead of deciding on the Saudi request to send their army to fight in Yemen, balked.

Islamabad took the position that it would play broker between Tehran and Riyadh. None of them cared nonetheless. It was a major foreign policy debacle. Pakistan had decisively annoyed the Saudis and Iran was not happy either due to Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan. It never fully trusted Pakistan, seeing it as a satellite state of Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Pakistan decided to send its troops under retired army chief Raheel Sharif to lead the 38-country Saudi military alliance against Iran. But for the Saudis, it was too little too late and it evaporated the Sharif goodwill factor from the equation.

So when the Saudis staged their biggest show against Iran to open up a centre against extremism with Trump by their side, the Pakistani Prime Minister was publicly snubbed as he was not invited to speak. The Saudi monarch and US President Donald Trump did not meet with him, despite the hype by the Pakistan Foreign Office.

Sharif retaliated somewhat when in Medina he spoke to the Press party and said that Pakistan may not agree with all the points in the declaration to open a centre for extremism. However, it seems that the time to woo back Iran towards Pakistan is gone. Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif was hardly diplomatic when he pointed out Pakistan’s role in this alliance against ‘extremism.’

However, here for once, Sharif is a victim. Ever since Z.A. Bhutto’s execution in 1979, no Pakistani prime minister has been in-charge of the foreign policy and foreign office. Pakistan’s foreign policy is a military domain along with its defence and security policy. The region knows it and the world knows it. That is why allies like the US and China deal directly with military and not the civilian leadership. It has been a fait accompli acknowledged by the whole world. But whenever something goes wrong the military and its lapdog media start blaming the civilian prime minister for every bad turn of events and start acting as if foreign policy and foreign office is being run by civilians. The game is very old but it works every time there is a foreign policy disaster.

At the moment the Foreign office is in complete disarray. The face in-charge is Sartaj Aziz who is too old to have a spine. Fatemi has been shown the door by the military and now there is no one who could have the inputs to form a dynamic and responsive foreign policy.

If Saudi Arabia disappears from the radar, it would be a hard pill to swallow for Pakistan that would have to shift all its stakes to Beijing. And if Islamabad doesn’t find friends fast or at least mend its fences with old friends, it would run the risk of becoming a client state of China which is not a very good option if one keeps in mind the North Korean model.

Personally, losing Saudi Arabia would be a severe blow to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It would make him more reliant on the military and would turn him into an India-hawk if in case he continues in politics after the 2018 elections.there are signs though,that he would like to retire to some European country. But his peaceful retirement depends on what verdict he gets from the Supreme Court in the Panama case a couple of months from now.