Pakistan’s decision to send its troops to Saudi Arabia for “advisory and training” purposes has sparked controversy, with some fearing that the troops might be used in the Saudi-led war against pro-Iran Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Although the army insists that the unspecified number of troops being sent to Saudi Arabia under a longstanding bilateral agreement will be stationed within the kingdom, and will not be part of any armed conflict, several parliamentarians questioned the move, claiming it violates a parliamentary resolution that Islamabad will not be part of any conflict in the Middle East, particularly Yemen.
The upper and lower houses — Senate and National Assembly — have asked the defence minister to appear before the parliament on Monday to explain the move, which follows a recent meeting in Riyadh between the country’s powerful army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdel Aziz.
The development also coincides with the culmination of a weeklong joint exercise between Pakistan’s Navy and the Saudi Royal Navy on Saturday in the Arabian Sea.
Though the army has not given the specific number of troops being sent to Saudi Arabia, opposition Senator Farhatullah Babar claimed in his speech during the Senate debate that a full division was being sent.
However, a senior military official, who asked not to be named due to restrictions on speaking to the media, told Anadolu Agency that slightly more than 1,000 troops were being sent to Saudi Arabia to join the already stationed more than 1,100 troops in the kingdom in line with a 1982 security protocol between the two sides.
“Who has taken this unilateral decision? Has anyone given serious thought to its grave consequences?” Senate Chairman Mian Raza Rabbani said during a debate on Friday.
Referring to repeated Foreign Ministry statements condemning the missile attacks by Houthi rebels as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the holy mosques, Rabbani, who belongs to the left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), argued that they seemed to justify the move to actively engage the Yemenis in the conflict on the side of Saudis.
Shireen Mazari, a legislator from former cricket hero Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, voiced similar views.
“Why has such an important decision been taken without consulting the parliament, especially when there is already a resolution that bars the government from taking such steps, which could harm our relations with other countries?” Mazari, a former professor of international relations at Islamabad’s Quaid-I-Azam University, told Anadolu Agency, in a thinly veiled reference to Iran.
Pakistan army, in a previous statement, insisted that neither the fresh contingent nor the already stationed troops would be deployed outside Saudi Arabia.
“In continuation of ongoing Pak-KSA bilateral security cooperation, a Pakistan army contingent is being sent to the KSA on training and advise mission. These or troops already there will not be employed outside KSA. Pak Army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other GCC / regional countries,” said the statement.
Downplaying parliamentarians’ concerns, security analysts see growing security cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which according to them is facing internal security issues.
“I do not give any weight to the apprehensions from some parliamentarians. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had longstanding security cooperation, which includes the deployment of Pakistani troops on Saudi soil only for internal security and training purposes,” Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based defence analyst, told Anadolu Agency.
Pakistani troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, he insisted, have never been deployed outside the kingdom’s territory.
Sehgal, editor of the country’s respected Pakistan Defense Journal, observed that security cooperation between the two allies is beefing up.
“Saudi Arabia is facing problems over its internal security,” Sehgal said, referring to reported differences within the ruling Al-Saud family, and a recent crackdown on corruption which led to the arrest of several ruling family members.
“Pakistani soldiers will have nothing to do with the Yemen war or any other conflict. Their only role will be to train and help Saudi forces maintain internal security,” he said, citing the appointment of former army chief Gen Raheel Sharif as commander of a 42-nation anti-terrorism alliance in support of his argument regarding growing security cooperation between the two sides.
Sehgal dismissed fears that sending additional troops to Saudi Arabia would irk its longtime rival Iran.
“The army chief already made it clear to the Iranian leadership during his recent visit to Tehran that Pakistan’s army will not be part of any conflict involving Tehran and Riyadh. I don’t think Iran will take this move to be against it,” he maintained.
Retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, an Islamabad-based security analyst, supported Sehgal’s point.
“Deploying additional troops in Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with the Yemen conflict. It is linked to the kingdom’s internal security, which seems to be in trouble,” Shah, who himself was part of a Pakistan army contingent stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1984-87, told Anadolu Agency.
“There was no need for additional troops for training and advisory purposes when over 1,100 soldiers are already there for the same. Similarly, they will not be used in Yemen as Pakistan has already made it clear that it will not be part of any conflict involving pro- and anti-Saudi elements,” said Shah.
“It seems as if Saudi Arabia needs additional strength to deal with its internal security-related issues,” he added.
But he also said the issue had been mishandled.
“The deployment is part of a government-to-government agreement between the two countries. Pakistan’s army should not have announced it unilaterally. Instead, the defence minister should have made an announcement in this regard,” said Shah.