Recently, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed that a “threat to Saudi Arabia will evoke strong reaction from Pakistan” during a meeting with the top defence-related brass, which was convened after the Kingdom’s offensive against the Houthi rebels in Yemen started. While a lot of Pakistanis are not in favour of going into what they perceive as a sectarian conflict, they fail to recognise both the strategic and economic implications if Pakistan does not support the Saudi Arabia-led offensive against the Houthi rebels. Firstly, the PML-N led government has every right to take this decision based on the number of representatives it has in parliament. However, what needs to be understood is that it’s not just the government, but also the military establishment which is backing the whole offensive due to strategic compulsions.
The two arguments against the engagement of Pakistani troops in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are: why engage our troops in a foreign country when we are fighting our own war; and why be part of a sectarian conflict? The truth is that a nation’s foreign policy is not driven by emotions but is based on long-term economic and strategic security concerns. Pakistan has taken part in Arab conflicts in the past. Fighter pilots from the Pakistan Air Force had flown Royal Saudi Air Force jets to repel an incursion from south Yemen in 1969. One should also remember that there are 400 Pakistani military trainers present in the Kingdom, already training Saudis on border management against the Islamic State on the Iraqi border.
The recent decision to support Saudi Arabia in this conflict is backed both, by the military and civilian leaderships, which see the stability of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan’s interest for two reasons: millions of Pakistanis work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with the highest number being in Saudi Arabia. Apart from that, the GCC remains the largest source of foreign exchange for Pakistan. In addition, Saudi Arabia remains Pakistan’s biggest strategic ally and helps meet our energy needs. Instability within the GCC and Saudi Arabia would mean millions of Pakistanis coming back jobless, hurting us economically. We have seen what happened to Pakistanis living in Kuwait after Iraq invaded that country.
The question remains: will Pakistan’s participation in the operation in Yemen hurt Pakistan’s own war? No. Our military and air force deployment inside Saudi Arabia will be limited in numbers and the decision regarding this should be left to the military command. We regularly send troops on UN missions. Does our participation in these missions affect us? No. Secondly, the perception that the Yemen conflict is sectarian in nature is only because of Iran’s support to the Houthi rebels. In reality, this is more of an ethnic conflict with there being a quest for political power. Pakistan’s foreign policy with regards to Iran traditionally has been to defend Iran too. Hence, a serious diplomatic effort from our foreign office should be made to convince Iran that its stability as well as that of Saudi Arabia is vital for Pakistan. We cannot ignore either country.
We must also understand that there are more than 10 Muslim countries, including Turkey, backing the strikes in Yemen against the Houthis and Pakistan will eventually have to choose sides or lose support from our biggest strategic partners and energy providers. It is now up to the prime minister and his government to cash in on the opportunity and get a good economic deal for Pakistan in exchange for providing security for the GCC countries.
Pakistan could gain economically if a sound deal is negotiated for providing jobs to Pakistanis in the GCC countries, as well as negotiating a better energy deal. A good economic package negotiated at an appropriate time to benefit all Pakistanis will help the case for a greater military role in the GCC countries.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2015.