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The Great Dance: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen Question

Pakistan refused to send troops to help Saudi Arabia and the UAE fight its war in Yemen. The Saudis and the Emiratis were furious. Ties seemed on the brink of being snapped.

Then, last week, generals from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia met as their troops conducted a joint exercise. All seemed well. So, what was all that about?

In early April, Pakistan’s parliament held a crucial debate over five days. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had begun an assault on Yemen. They requested Pakistani troops. Neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis have the capacity for ground warfare, but their fighters are comfortable in the air.

The Pakistani parliament surprised both the Saudis and the Emiratis with a twelve-point resolution.

Unanimously, the parliament vowed to defend Saudi territory, as the home of Mecca and Medina. It called upon the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to bring the parties to ceasefire negotiations.

The most significant of their points was number eight: “[Parliament] desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role in the crisis.”

In other words, no Pakistani ground troops to enter on the Saudi-Emirati side.

The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that the Pakistani decision was “dangerous and unexpected”. He accused Pakistan of siding with the Iranians.

Saudi Arabia dispatched its trusted Minister for Religious Affairs, Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammad al-Sheikh. It is said in Islamabad that he came to chide Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the caprice of the Pakistanis.

Prime Minister Sharif said that the resolution had been “misinterpreted”, and that Pakistan did indeed pledge to support the Saudis in a defensive war. The problem that he had to face was that the Pakistani parliament had refused to allow its troops to enter an aggressive war against Yemen.

In the salons of Pakistan, they say that Nawaz Sharif is a Saudi holding company. When he fled the country in 1999, he went to the Saudi kingdom, where he lived in central Jeddah until his return in 2008. That he could not deliver troops when the kingdom demanded them was seen as an insult.

Nawaz Sharif rushed off to Riyadh ten days later. He took with him General Raheel Sharif and Defence Minister Khawaja Asif. This was a top brass visit. The Saudis met him cordially, but would not shake off their anger. They expected more. Nawaz Sharif could not deliver their needs.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – along with Morocco – formed the World Muslim League in 1964 and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 1969 as part of a global offensive against Communism.

These links drew Pakistani fighter pilots to Saudi Arabia in 1969 to take on a South Yemeni incursion. Pakistani troops became a frequent presence in the kingdom in the following decades.

In the 1980s, Riyadh’s money – and its jihadis – had gone to Pakistan’s northern border to fight in Afghanistan. These bonds had been forged in money and blood. So why did Pakistan decide not to join the latest war?

The surface answer given in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the civilian and military capitals, is that the Pakistanis are too busy fighting their own war – Operation Zarb-e-Azb [“Sharp Strike”] in Waziristan.

That war is not against the Pakistani Taliban, but against foreign fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Chechen Islamic Jihad Union, Imarat Kaukaz and the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement.

It is hard to determine how the Pakistani army has been doing. The only information comes from its Inter-Services Public Relations wing. There is consensus, however, that Pakistan’s army is tied down by its own wars.

A second, less obvious, reason comes from a senior Pakistani diplomat. He told me a few months ago that sections of the Pakistani military worried about the nature of Saudi conflicts.

In 2014, when King Salman was crown prince, he visited Pakistan and urged Nawaz Sharif to come out in public for the removal of Bashar al-Assad. This is precisely what Nawaz Sharif did, much to the chagrin of his military brass.

In earlier conflicts in the Middle East, the Pakistani military went willingly because these were being framed in terms of the defense of Islam. This battle in West Asia now seems less about the defence of Islam and more on sectarian lines – as a Sunni-Shia conflict.

The war in Yemen seemed framed in sectarian terms. That the UAE’s Foreign Minister accused Pakistan of being an Iranian stooge seemed to prove the point.

The Pakistani military does not want to enter such a conflict, as it would merely create more problems along sectarian lines in Pakistan itself.

Last week, Pakistan’s military chief, General Raheel Sharif, who was not keen on the Yemen war, visited King Salman and his own Saudi counterpart, General Abdul Rehman Bin Saleh al-Bunyan.

At al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, General Sharif met with King Salman to rebuild “close relations between the two brotherly countries”. Outside, a contingent of Saudi and Pakistani troops conducted a joint military exercise.

It was symbolic, but it showed that the ties are not utterly frayed.

What gave the Pakistani military confidence to walk away from the Saudi request, says the senior diplomat, was the gradual alignment of Pakistan to a Chinese and Russian axis. In November 2014, Russia and Pakistan signed a “military cooperation” agreement, with secret discussions about Pakistani purchases of Russian military hardware.

The Chinese have pledged to invest $46 billion in Pakistan, some of which is more than likely to go to the Pakistani military. Saudi money is not the only game in town. It is perhaps one of the reasons why a section of the Pakistani elite is no longer utterly beholden to Riyadh.

This article originally appeared on al-Araby al-Jadeed.

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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