Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz held a luncheon meeting at the Royal Palace in Riyadh on 23 April, where Nawaz Sharif reportedly expressed “solidarity” with Saudi Arabia, specifically with regards to Saudi military intervention in Yemen. The meeting was followed by delegation-level talks where Pakistan emphasised the measures it had taken to support the United Nations Security Council resolution on Yemen. The Pakistani delegation included the army chief General Raheel Sharif and Defence Minister Khawaja Asif.
It was felt that the visit would clear the air on the Pakistani support for Saudi intervention in Yemen (Operation Decisive Storm) and unambiguously convey to the regional actors that Pakistan stands by Saudi Arabia. The outcome of the visit according to some Pakistani officials would shape the contours of Pak-Saudi relations for the next few years. This article looks at the possible reasons Pakistan is “agonising” over Yemen and the implications they may hold for India.
In early April, Riyadh reportedly asked Pakistan for combat aircrafts, warships and troops as it launched its Operation Decisive Storm. But on 07 April, the Pakistani lawmakers voted to remain “neutral” in the conflict, albeit Sharif later clarified in a televised speech that in case of an aggression against Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would be at Riyadh’s side. A Pakistani delegation led by the Defence Minister did visit Saudi Arabia to assess the Saudi requirement.
While Saudi Arabia expressed its disappointment on the Pakistani decision on Yemen, Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirate (UAE) minister of state for foreign affairs, lashed out at Pakistan accusing it of siding with Iran, and that the decision would come at a “high cost” to Pakistan. Subsequently, a high-level “damage control” delegation led by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif along with Sartaj Aziz reached Jeddah on 15 April to meet Saudi leadership and give reassurance of Pakistan support.
It well known that Pakistan has military personnel in training and advisory capacity in Saudi Arabia and that they remained present even after Operation Decisive Storm was launched. Pakistan claims its troops were holding a pre-scheduled joint military drill with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan Army spokesman said that the joint military exercise “Samsam-5″ was being conducted since 19 March in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif and that 292 Pakistani military personnel were participating in the drill. It appeared that the usual excuse of safeguarding the holy sites in Saudi Arabia was no longer good enough in a surcharged sectarian situation, both internally as well as for the international environment.
The initial Pakistani explanations attributed its “neutral” stand to the sectarian Shiite-Sunni fault-line and strife in the country and how much of its military was committed in internal security and counter-insurgency operations. Pakistani reasserted its commitment to safeguard Saudi territorial sovereignty after reports indicated that Saudis wanted Pakistani troops on their border with Yemen. It offered naval assets, already in the area for evacuation of its citizens from Yemen, to enforce an arms blockade. Saudis obviously were not appeased.
There was also this Pakistani assessment that Saudi Arabia might have over-reached itself in Yemen and that it would be a protracted military affair. Saudi Arabia, after calling off the bombing campaign of 30 days and 2,415 sorties, resumed airstrikes and there appears no end in sight to the campaign.
Pakistan also coordinated closely with the Turkish government and tried to encourage the OIC and the UN to play a more proactive diplomatic role. Pakistan supported the United Nations Security Council resolution on Yemen which called for an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels.
There is no denying the soundness of traditional Pakistan-Saudi relations and economic ties which overlay a strong security understanding. Then with Pakistani troops already in Saudi Arabia in an assisting role, why the Saudi request to scale up? According to some analysts, it is a propaganda issue. The Saudis were particularly perturbed over not physically seeing Pakistanis by their side as they would like the Pakistanis to be more visible in their military campaign. Another reason is that the Saudis think that military support from Pakistan and Turkey is imperative for ground operations.
On the issue of Iran, Pakistan may have felt that its ties with Saudi Arabia cannot and should not come at the expense of a neighbour with which it shares a significant border. Also the, the Syrian conflict has made Iran more aggressive in its approach to proxy conflicts and it could respond to existing sectarian Shiite-Sunni strife in Pakistan more significantly than it had done in the past. Pakistan is aware that Iran has been recruiting among the country’s refugees and immigrants, thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis to fight in Syria, offering them financial rewards and residency. Of these the Fatemiyoun Brigade is made up of Afghan volunteers who fight in Syria to protect holy Shi’ite shrines while the Zeynabiyoun Brigade has been established by Pakistanis fighting in Syria.
Pakistani leadership also reportedly discussed the issue with the Chinese leadership and were given the indication that the Saudi threat should be ignored. Iranian support for Chinese initiatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan would have trumped any considerations for backing the Saudis.
Pakistan’s interests may also lie in broadening ties with Iran, especially in terms of energy cooperation, and to position itself to take advantage of the rollback of sanctions that the US-Iran nuclear deal may allow. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, during a two-day visit to Pakistan agreed with Sartaj Aziz that dialogue was the way to resolve the Yemen conflict. The Iranian FM also called on Gen Sharif at the GHQ in Rawalpindi.
The security of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities could have been a factor. Recently the New York Times recommended that attention be turned to constraining them. Particularly since the Pakistan Taliban has claimed that they have developed and successfully test-fired a missile christened ‘Omar-1’. The narrative coming out of Pakistan in response has been that with Iran neutralised, Pakistan remains the only nuclear-capable Islamic nation and it is US aim to denuclearise all Islamic countries.
This Pakistani discomfort with the focus on its nukes could have contributed to its dithering over the support to Saudi Arabia in its intervention in Yemen. Pakistan’s affirmation of its faith in the UN Security Council and the desire to remain “neutral” in a “distant war” could be more to project itself as a responsible nuclear state.
Yet some experts believe the contrary. They feel that Pakistan’s complicated international relations and regional position and the likelihood of scenarios such as a US-Iranian convergence, the ongoing China-Russia rapprochement, an increased India-Iran cooperation and the situation in Afghanistan might drive Islamabad to forge even closer ties with Saudi Arabia.
Notwithstanding PM Sharif’s political gamesmanship and Gen Sharif’s “below the radar” parleys with the Saudis, Pakistani reactions are symptomatic of the changing geo-strategic equations in the Middle East. India, if it reads the situation well, can turn it into an opportunity to extract more responsible behaviour from Pakistan as it attempts to morph from a “frontline state” to a developing economy.
This article was published at CLAWS.