Creating new perspectives since 2009

Pakistan and the Saudi-led action in Yemen

April 9, 2015 at 4:03 pm

For the last fortnight, airstrikes by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia have pounded Yemen. The stated aim of the strikes is to attack the Houthi rebels, the mainly Shia militia that seized control of the capital last year. Saudi Arabia claims that the group are terrorists backed by their arch-rival, Iran. For its part, Iran has accused the Saudis of committing “genocide” in Yemen.

When airstrikes were announced late last month, a wide range of countries gave their backing. Saudi Arabia’s fellow Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE are involved, as well as others in the region – Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. Further afield, Pakistan, Sudan and Turkey said they supported the action. Some raised eyebrows at the support of these last three countries, suggesting that Riyadh is calling in favours from countries that it has propped up in the past. As the airstrikes continue, Saudi is seeking a firmer commitment from these countries: it wants to build a coalition for a possible ground offensive.

Pakistan is certainly a country that owes Saudi in a big way. The country regularly needs substantial sums of foreign money to avoid economic disaster, due to endemic tax dodging and a struggling currency. Last year, the Saudis gave the country $1.5 billion. The current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads a right-wing party, also owes a personal debt: he was given refuge in Saudi after being overthrown in a military coup in 1999.

Yet the question of involvement in the Yemen conflict has been highly controversial in Pakistan. According to the Pakistani defence minister Khawaja Ansaf the Saudis have asked Pakistan for military aircraft, warships and soldiers. The issue has been the subject of a heated parliamentary debate for days (it began on Monday). Speaking about the issue in public, Sharif has avoided the question, saying that he will defend any threat to Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” without specifying what that threat might be, or how he would defend it. Many suspect that the government hopes to give the minimum level of support possible. In recent days, Sharif has indicated that he may want to work with Turkey – also reluctant to commit troops – to defuse the situation in Yemen.

This is not due to a lack of loyalty in government to their allies in the Gulf. There are logistical concerns: in a country wracked by insurgency and with paranoia about guarding its borders, the armed forces are tied up and the public is war-weary. Pakistan has 1.5 million active soldiers and reserves. A third of them are involved in fighting the Taliban in the country’s northern regions, bordering Afghanistan. Most of the remaining forces are facing off against India, while others are executing the government’s counter-terrorism plan. In this country, ruled by the military for half of its short history, the generals have the final say on all matters of foreign policy. But thus far, they have been silent.

Despite this chaotic situation at home, Pakistan has a long history of contributing troops to UN peacekeeping forces. It has also sent troops to Saudi Arabia repeatedly, to back a strategic alliance between the two countries. Yet this conflict is different. Although the situation in Yemen is deeply complicated and multifaceted, with the involvement of foreign powers, it is increasingly characterised as a Sunni-Shia clash, and as well as a face-off between Tehran and Riyadh. Pakistan has its own sectarian issues. Like Saudi Arabia, it is a Sunni-majority nation. A fifth of the 180 million population is Shia, making Pakistan the biggest home for Shia Muslims outside Iran – but this community faces frequent terrorist attack. Getting embroiled in a sectarian war in the Middle East risks further destabilising Pakistan. There is also the issue of alienating Iran, with which Pakistan shares a long and porous border. The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammed Javed Zarif, recently spent two days in Islamabad, urging leaders to work towards a ceasefire instead of committing ground troops.

Broadly, public opinion in Pakistan is opposed to intervention in Yemen. “Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia’s handmaiden, doing its bidding at the flick of a wrist,” said the Express Tribune, a leading English-language newspaper, in an editorial that largely summed up the attitude held by many: why should we get involved in a far-away war that has no gain for us? This is a public that faces the constant threat of violence or terror attack: there is little appetite for a costly foreign war, particularly one that has so little relevance to Pakistan’s prevailing preoccupations of India and Afghanistan. One politician drew a comparison to Pakistan’s support of the US war in Iraq, arguing that foreign powers shouldn’t be allowed to dictate Pakistani policy.

While constitutionally Sharif has the right to make the final decision, he has said he does not want to do so without the blessing of parliament. This is hardly the fastest course of action: debates have been known to go on for months and a coalition of opposition parties is keen to hammer Sharif. He is vulnerable to the charge of being too beholden to Saudi Arabia, and he will want to avoid looking like a pawn for a foreign government. At the moment, an expression of support without the commitment of ground troops seems most likely, but of course, the only truly predictable fact about Pakistani politics is that it is impossible to predict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.