Nawaz Sharif in Riyadh as Pakistan plays peacemaker in Iran-Saudi row
RIYADH - Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held talks with Saudi King Salman on Monday as part of efforts to ease regional tensions between the Sunni kingdom and Shiite Iran.
Sharif is to head on Tuesday to Riyadh's rival Iran where he is expected to meet President Hassan Rouhani.
Saudi Arabia and a number of its Arab allies cut diplomatic ties with Iran in early January, sending already tense relations between the rival nations to a new low.
Riyadh reacted after protesters burned Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran after the kingdom on January 2 executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
He was among 47 people put to death in a single day for "terrorism". Most of those executed were Sunnis.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, Salman "welcomed the prime minister of Pakistan and his delegation" to his palace.
The report gave no details of their discussions, which SPA earlier said were to touch on regional as well as bilateral issues.
"Pakistan is deeply concerned at the recent escalation of tensions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran," Islamabad's foreign ministry spokesman Qazi Khalilullah said ahead of Sharif's trip.
He said the prime minister had called for a peaceful settlement of differences in the interests of Muslim unity.
"The purpose of the visit is to mediate and to end the standoff between the two countries," a Pakistani government official said, requesting anonymity.
Sharif arrived two days after a historic international deal lifted sanctions on Iran in return for a scaling back of its nuclear capabilities.
Riyadh fears the agreement will only further embolden Iran, which it accuses of regional interference.
SPA said the prime minister was accompanied by Pakistan's powerful army chief, General Raheel Sharif.
Pakistan is a majority Sunni country but 20 percent of the population is Shiite.
The country's parliament last year refused to send forces to help a Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen.
But this month Islamabad said it "welcomes" a separate Saudi coalition of 34 nations to combat "terrorism" in the Islamic world.
Diplomats have said it remained unclear how that coalition will work in practice.
Pakistan has deep military ties with Saudi Arabia and it has long benefited from the oil-rich kingdom's largesse.
Sharif himself has close personal ties with the Saudi royal family who sheltered him during years in exile.