Nawaz Sharif is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It was Saudi Arabia, where his family has large business interests, that saved his life when he was arrested after the Musharraf coup in 1999. Moreover, the Saudis regularly stepped in, either with concessional oil supplies or direct doles, whenever the perennially cash-strapped Pakistan was going broke. Saudi Arabia even funded Pakistani acquisitions of F-16 fighters from the US. Pakistan provided its air force pilots in operations by Saudi forces against Yemen in 1969. Over 15,000 Pakistan army personnel were deployed in Saudi Arabia, whenever the Saudi monarchy so required. Pakistan is now, however, facing hard choices, as the Saudis are finding themselves confronting a growingly influential Iran, even within the Arab world.
The latest challenge that Saudi Arabia faces is the takeover in Yemen by Shia Houthis, where the Saudis had suffered a setback when they attempted military intervention in 2009-10. The Saudis have been chafing at growing Iranian influence in Yemen, with which they share a long land border. When Sharif arrived in Riyadh on March 3, he was unprecedentedly received by King Salman, Crown Prince Muqrin and the rising star in the monarchy—the 30-year-old sixth son of the monarch and the kingdom’s defence minister, Prince Muhammad bin Salman. There is little doubt that Saudi charm, patronage and persuasion were effectively used to get Sharif to agree to Pakistani military participation in a forthcoming Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
When the intervention commenced a fortnight ago, the Saudis revealed that Pakistan was the only non-Arab country whose armed forces would be participating in the operations. Past Saudi military interventions in Yemen in the 1930s and 2009-10 had met fierce resistance, especially from the Shia Houthis, operating from mountainous terrain in Northern Yemen. It is obvious that any invading force taking on the Houthis and their allies, together with the armed forces of former Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh, will face a rough time. Moreover, there is little to suggest that the Houthis were in a hurry to embrace Iran in a manner that would compromise Saudi security. While the Americans have acted as cheerleaders for Saudi intervention, it is widely acknowledged that US policies in Iraq, Syria and Libya have fuelled sectarian violence and ISIL-style Wahhabi extremism across the Islamic world. Interestingly, in this geopolitical maze, Israel is generally allied with Arab countries, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Egypt.
Sharif sent a high-level delegation, including Defence Minister Khwaja Asif, National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and Chief of General Staff Lt Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, for discussions with the Saudi defence minister. Asif proclaimed he had “very good discussions” with Prince Muhammad, adding “the visit helped us in having a better understanding of the conflict in Yemen and the concerns of our Saudi brethren”. Saudi military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asir, however, bluntly asserted: “Pakistan has also offered to join the coalition against the Houthis. Pakistan will be sending troops to the kingdom (Saudi Arabia).” The Iranian Government summoned the Pakistan ambassador and demanded an explanation. Amid widespread unease, controversy and concern in Pakistan at involvement in a military quagmire abroad, a meeting of opposition parliamentarians chaired by Asif Zardari demanded an all-party meeting and parliamentary approval for any military involvement in Yemen, while proclaiming the “centrality of Saudi Arabia for the Muslims of the world”.
Given the tensions and uncertainties on Pakistan’s land borders with Afghanistan, India and Iran, continuing civil war with the Pakistani Taliban and Shia-Sunni tensions across his country, Sharif will have a tough time meeting the expectations of his Saudi financiers and benefactors. “Saudi Arabia has asked for combat aircraft, warships and soldiers.” Asif told a joint session of Pakistan’s Parliament. Pakistan, hopefully, realises that free lunches are never served in international relations. email@example.com
The writer is a former diplomat