By Tommy Wilkes
ISLAMABAD, Jan 7 – Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister arrives in Pakistan on Thursday, where he will meet leaders of a government keen to defuse spiraling sectarian tension between the Sunni-majority kingdom and Shiite Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric on Saturday has inflamed tension across the Middle East and infuriated Iran, Riyadh’s main rival in the region.
Several of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies have broken diplomatic ties with Iran after demonstrators ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Pakistan, which has a large Shiite minority, has sought to avoid taking sides as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tries to stem sectarian violence at home and boost economic ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser, said Pakistan was a friend of both Saudi Arabia and Iran and would seek to heal the rift between them during Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir’s visit.
“Pakistan has called for resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of Muslim unity in these challenging times,” Aziz told parliament on Tuesday.
Al Jubeir is scheduled to meet Aziz, the prime minister and Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, later on Thursday.
The visit comes after Pakistan last month distanced itself from an anti-Islamic State coalition announced by Saudi Arabia, which had named Pakistan as a member.
Pakistan also declined a Saudi call to join a Riyadh-led intervention, backed by most Sunni Gulf Arab states, in Yemen last year to fight Iranian-allied rebels.
Pakistan wants to deepen trade links with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and improve access to their vast energy resources to fuel its power-hungry economy.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have cultivated a close alliance for decades, and Sharif spent time in political exile in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, after he was ousted in a military coup.