Looks like Islamabad tries to dodge taking an active part in the military operation against Yemen. Pakistani Prime Minister Navaz Sharif owes Saudi Arabia. It saved his life and let his clan prosper. Thanks to kingdom’s interference he was exiled from the country instead of facing the death sentence handed down by the country’s Supreme Court in 2001. Sharif was sheltered by Saudi Arabia after the coup that overthrew him in 1999. The benevolent attitude of kingdom’s ruling circles contributed to success of his family business.
Now Riyadh is irritated by the fact that personal close relationship with the Prime Minister does not guarantee Pakistan’s participation in the operation against Yemen. The talks about the Pakistan’s role in the military campaign have been dragging on since March 2015. When will Pakistan join and what forces will it assign? With the operation in Yemen launched Saudi Arabia wanted a definite answer. In response Navaz Sharif was engaged in high skill political maneuvering. After making loud and bellicose statements in support of the Operation Decisive Storm he referred the issue to the parliament. The debates have been dragging on for more than a week looking more like a breeze shooting session than talking shop. Pakistani MPs appear to be dragging time in the hope that either Riyadh would abandon its plans to launch a ground operation or Yemeni belligerents would reach a deal.
A 22-member strong Iranian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Pakistan and discussed the issue on the situation in Yemen without receiving any clarification on the Pakistan’s position related to the Decisive Storm. Riyadh is in the same situation. The Pakistani PM expressed his support for the intervention and said the security of the country which hosts two major Islamic holy sites is of paramount importance. But these words never transformed into deeds.
Evading saying anything in concrete terms Pakistan took a decision to stay aside keeping away from taking part in real actions. It would make worthless declarations and avoid anything that could influence his successful policy of balancing between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The military and political alliance between the kingdom and Pakistan is a unique phenomenon. It’s a process of long duration – something unusual for the countries of the region. In 1967 the partners launched a program of bilateral military cooperation. The relationship has been tested a number of times to prove its effectiveness and durability.
In 1969 there were skirmishes between South Yemen (the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen) and Saudi Arabia for control over Mount Vadiya inside the province of Sharoora in Saudi Arabia. A number of Pakistan army and air force personnel were deputed to Jordan to push the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasir Arafat out of the country. The PLO wanted to overthrow the Hashemite dynasty and establish a state of its own. The Pakistani participation was paid for by Saudi Arabia.
It’s a common knowledge that Saudi Arabia helped Pakistan to go nuclear and offered assistance to counter the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan financially supported and armed Afghan mujahideen.
In December 1982 the Organization of Saudi-Pakistani Armed Forces was founded, headquartered in Riyadh. In addition to training professional personnel and Pakistani military equipment maintenance specialists serving in Saudi Arabia, the agreement included a provision for joint cooperation in the field of defence production and scientific research. Since then about 700-1000 Pakistani security experts are constantly present in the country which hosts the holy sites. Unlike US military companies, Middle East private military contractors act clandestinely keeping their activities away from public eye. They are happy to have Pakistani military, intelligence and special operations veterans on the payroll to make them carry out missions of delicate nature in the interests of Riyadh and the whole “holy alliance” of Persian Gulf monarchies.
Islamabad is the Saudi Arabia’s third trade partner. The Saudi’s formal financial aid to Pakistan was equal to $1, 5 billion in 2014 not counting the donations of various Pakistani funds allocated for social and economic development. There are over two million Pakistani legal migrant workers in Saudi Arabia as Pakistan has to face financial austerity and unemployment. The money they send home to the families in Pakistan is an important factor to bolster the bilateral relationship.
There is something else. Since a long time Saudi Arabia has been viewing the Pakistani armed forces as a factor in military planning. The kingdom spends more than 10% of GDP on military, including arms procurement. There are too many weapons systems in the inventory and not enough personnel to man them. Pakistan is relied on to provide skilled manpower in contingencies.
On April 9, religious Sunni organizations and madrasah students held a large rally in Islamabad to support of the operation conducted by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa political organization, said if MPs don’t support the Operation Decisive Storm, they will lose the next elections. He said Sharif may forget about the kind attitude he and his family received from Saudi Arabia, but Pakistani people do remember the assistance they got from Riyadh helping Afghan mujahedeen, the Saudi humanitarian help after the earthquake in 2005 and a $1.5 billion grant received from the kingdom.
Pakistani authorities, the military and secular opposition remain deaf to such arguments. Pragmatism and political realism prevail over the feeling of gratitude and allegiance to the alliance. Islamabad takes into consideration the fact that active participation in Decisive Storm may evoke Beijing’s discontent and irritate Iran. The number of irritants dividing the countries is growing to include the gas issue and border disputes.
Pakistan has also internal reasons to distance itself from the coalition. The fight against Islamists in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) escalates to require more money and effort. The deterioration of the situation made Pakistan launch the Operation Khyber-2. No matter the regular armed forces superiority, the rebels made the military retreat from its positions in the Tirah area.
The fact that 30-40 million (out of 190 million of Pakistani population), or one fifth of Pakistanis, are Shia Muslims is the main reason behind the unwillingness of Islamabad to join Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The fear of opening an old wound by aggravating the contradictions between Sunnis and Shiites outweighs the Saudi promises of increasing investments and credits granted without interest rates. Senator Mushahid Hussain said it would be a folly to send troops to Yemen. Senator Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah said Pakistan should not send troops. “It’s not our war”, he said. The majority of Pakistani politicians said Pakistan was ready to render any support to Saudi Arabia to defend its territorial security, stability and territorial integrity. But they don’t think that the military adventure in Yemen justifies the Pakistan’s involvement.