Pakistan PM looks to play peacemaker with Saudi Arabia, Iran visits

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will travel to Saudi Arabia and Iran on Monday, in a bid to bridge the growing divide between the two countries after the Sunni kingdom’s execution of a Shi’ite cleric sparked a bitter row.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif looks on during a lecture on Sri Lanka-Pakistan Relations in Colombo, Sri Lanka January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sharif will fly to Saudi Arabia on Monday before visiting Iran’s capital Tehran on Tuesday, Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement on Sunday. Army chief General Raheel Sharif will also accompany the prime minister during the visit, government sources told Reuters.

Islamabad has sought to avoid taking sides in the escalating dispute between Saudi Arabia and its main regional rival Iran, as it wrestles with its own sectarian tensions at home and works to bolster economic ties with both countries.

“Pakistan is deeply concerned at the recent escalation of tensions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the foreign office said in a statement.

“The Prime Minister has called for resolution of differences through peaceful means, in the larger interest of Muslim unity, particularly during these challenging times.”

Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric earlier this month was followed by Iranian demonstrators ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran, prompting several of Riyadh’s Sunni allies to break off diplomatic ties with Iran.

Sunni majority Pakistan maintains deep links with the establishment in Riyadh, which provided Sharif with political asylum in the 2000s after he was ousted in a military coup.

Sharif’s trip to Saudi Arabia follows the visit of both the Saudi foreign minister and deputy crown prince to Islamabad last week, underlining the closeness of the relationship between the two states.

But with a large Shi’ite minority, Pakistan has a lot to lose from rising sectarian tensions. Last year Pakistan declined a Saudi call to join a Riyadh-led military intervention in Yemen to fight Iranian-allied insurgents.

Islamabad also wants to finish a major gas pipeline to Iran on its western border.

Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Ros Russell