Heads of state do not typically flock to oversee military exercises in which their country’s troops are participating. But war games in Saudi Arabia are clearly an exception.
Our prime minister and army chief last week joined dignitaries ranging from Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to watch the ‘Thunder of the North’ military exercises — the largest in the region, involving forces from 20 Muslim-majority countries.
Pakistan’s hearty participation in the exercises once again raises questions about the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. The exercises follow Riyadh’s surprise announcement in December of a 34-member coalition to fight terrorism, in which Pakistan’s involvement appeared a fait accompli. The kingdom has announced that the coalition will share intelligence and develop strategies to combat violent extremist ideologies, but also deploy troops if necessary.
Clarity is required on Pakistan’s ties with the Saudis.
Pakistan’s Senate last month expressed concerns about Pakistan’s inclusion in the coalition, fearing that it would drag the country into the Syrian conflict. Our participation in last week’s exercises may lead us down a slippery slope on which we cannot embark without a better understanding of the implications.
Most importantly, the public deserves a clearer indication of the potential for Pakistani troops to become involved in conflicts in Syria and Yemen as a result of growing counterterrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia, particularly after parliament in April last year decided against sending Pakistani troops to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Transparency regarding military cooperation with the kingdom is particularly important given growing concerns that Saudi Arabia has violated international laws and allegedly committed war crimes by systematically targeting civilians during the conflict in Yemen. Western governments that sell arms to Saudi Arabia are increasingly under pressure by human rights groups to cease supplies to it for use in Yemen. In the UK, a cross-party committee is investigating British arms sales to Saudi Arabia while a high court is determining whether such sales have violated British and EU arms export laws.
Pakistanis also need greater transparency around the transactional parameters of the relationship with Saudi Arabia; in other words, how true is the perception that Pakistan is a gun for hire in exchange for subsidised fuel and bailouts?
While the military exercises were under way, Saudi Arabia also signed economic agreements worth $122 million with Pakistan, of which $67m are grants, rather than loans, to support infrastructure development and the construction of a college, hospital and housing. This is officially the largest amount of financial assistance Riyadh has provided over the past five years — the ‘gift’ of $1.5 billion in March 2014 remains off the books.
Officials on both sides have stated that the assistance is not linked to Pakistan’s participation in the coalition. Parliament’s decision not to engage in Yemen despite the receipt a year earlier of the $1.5bn ‘gift’ lends credence to the suggestion that the relationship is not brutally transactional. But only greater transparency can address lingering concerns about what Pakistan gets in exchange for its military support of Saudi Arabia, and at what greater cost.
Similar clarity is required regarding pressure tactics beyond financial inducements that might be deployed to ensure Pakistani support. Around 1.5 million Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia and their remittances help keep the economy afloat. To what extent would these be vulnerable were Pakistan to take a firm stance against further military involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts? Would crude oil imports be affected?
If Pakistan is to be a member of the coalition, it should also work closely with the kingdom under the auspices of the National Action Plan to clamp down on terrorism financing within Pakistan and enlist Riyadh’s support to push through madressah reforms here. However, there has to date been little discussion of how the kingdom, and the coalition, might bolster Pakistan’s CT initiatives that are already under way.
The focus on Pakistan’s military might also detracts from the fact that the country has an excellent track record for participating in UN peacekeeping missions and a long history of managing refugee and IDP crises. Rather than dispatch troops to become embroiled in murky conflicts, Pakistan could demonstrate its alliance with Gulf partners by playing a productive role and bringing stability through support during ceasefire agreements and with the regional refugee crisis.
Given its sensitivity to the sectarian dimension of Middle Eastern conflicts, Pakistan is also well positioned to facilitate back-channel negotiations to help resolve regional crises. The evolving situation in the Middle East provides Pakistan with an opportunity to recast itself not in terms of nukes and troops, but as diplomatic interlocutor with crisis management experience. Will our government seize this moment to shape, and clarify, the future course of the relationship with the kingdom?
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2016