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Pakistan faces perilous choice on Yemen

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In Brief

Saudi Arabia’s demand that Pakistan joins its coalition against the Houthi uprising in Yemen has put Islamabad in a catch-22 between joining the Saudi alliance and not antagonising its neighbour Iran. Joining the Saudi coalition would have long-term political, economic and security repercussions for Pakistan.


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Following a high-level Pakistani delegation to the kingdom, Pakistan’s parliament met on 6 April 2015 to debate the merits of joining the Saudi-led coalition against the uprising. The Saudis have asked Pakistan for aircrafts, naval vessels and ground troops.

Pakistan is not in a political position to say ‘no’ to the Saudis. Historically, Saudi Arabia has provided Pakistan with generous economic assistance. Millions of Pakistanis who work in the Middle East form the largest part of the global Pakistani diaspora. The foreign remittances sent home from the Middle East are a mainstay of Pakistan’s struggling economy. So, a blunt ‘no’ to the Saudi demand could put the livelihoods of these Pakistanis in danger.

At the same, Pakistan simply cannot afford to commit its troops. Surrounded by a multitude of internal and external security challenges, Pakistan’s plate is full on all sides. Joining the coalition would thus have serious long-term political, economic and security repercussions for the country.

After the successful conclusion of the US–Iran nuclear deal, the balance of power is shifting in the Middle East. Saudi airstrikes in Yemen close to the nuclear deal are no mere coincidence. The conflict is the start of a wider regional tussle in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence and hegemony. This is a conflict that Pakistan should avoid.

Getting sucked into the Iranian–Saudi power struggle could be detrimental to Pakistan’s fight against home-grown terrorism. After more than a decade of conflict, the situation in Pakistan is gradually stabilising. Moving troops to the Middle East now would be a fatal mistake.

Pakistan’s armed forces are already stretched. Forty per cent are engaged in combat positions. A third of the military and paramilitary troops are involved in counter-terrorism operation in Afghan–Pakistan border areas. And the remaining troops are deployed along the eastern Indian border or engaged in a multitude of counter-terrorism-related activities inside the country. So, Pakistan would do well to keep itself neutral and focus on more urgent domestic security matters.

Committing Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia in return for financial assistance will certainly come with a caveat allowing for Saudi-backed Salafist groups to preach their radical version of Islam in Pakistan unchecked. This will only increase the already entrenched religious radicalisation and polarisation in the country.

Joining the Saudi coalition will only antagonise Iran, with which Pakistan shares a 900-kilometre border. It could even result in another episode of Saudi–Iranian proxy war on Pakistani soil between Saudi-backed Sunni and Iran-backed Shia militant groups. After Iran, the second largest number of Shia in the world live in Pakistan. They make up around 15–20 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. Iran can use the sectarian card against Pakistan. Shia and Sunni militant groups have been involved in tit-for-tat sectarian killings in Pakistan for last three decades.

Saudi-backed Sunni groups like Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, Jamat-e-Islami and Iranian-backed Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen and the Imamia Student Organisation (ISO) are already protesting either in favour of or in opposition to Pakistan’s prospective decision to join the coalition.

To aggravate the situation, any Sunni–Shia rift in Pakistan would provide an ideal opportunity for Islamic State-affiliated militant groups to exploit the sectarian fault lines to gain a foothold and increase their influence in the society. Anti-Shia and anti-Iranian militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah can also join hands with Islamic State in such a situation.

Abroad, Iran also has the ability to undermine Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. It can extend support to groups and forces hostile to Pakistan, especially the Baloch separatist groups.

Energy is another concern for Pakistan. The lifting of US sanctions on Iran as a result of the nuclear deal has opened the way for energy-starved Pakistan to fulfil its soaring energy demands by importing Iranian gas. This is the quickest and cheapest way of overcoming the chronic energy crisis. But if Pakistan joins the Saudi coalition, Iran could retaliate by penalising Pakistan to the tune of US$300 million daily for failing to construct Pakistan’s portion of the 2012 Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline.

But there is a way out. At the height of the Cold War, Pakistan acted as a bridge for Sino–American rapprochement. Pakistan facilitated then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China, which paved the way for former US president Richard Nixon’s Beijing visit in 1972.

Today, Pakistan can play the same bridging role between Saudi Arabia and Iran at a time when no other Muslim country is making any serious efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen. This would allow Pakistan to improve its currently negative international reputation to that of a responsible Muslim state.

Pakistan has already started making efforts in this direction. On 3 April 2015 Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Turkey seeking assistance to find a peaceful settlement to the Yemeni dispute. On 8 April 2015, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Pakistan — on the government’s invitation — to discuss the situation in Yemen. Pakistan is also making efforts to convene an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Pakistan should have learnt its lessons from 30 years of jihadi misadventures in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. The Iranian–Saudi conflict goes beyond sectarian and geopolitical considerations to the struggle between Persian and Arabian civilisations. Committing Pakistani troops to the never-ending Iranian–Saudi power struggle would be foolhardy at best.

Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

An earlier version of this article was originally published here by RSIS.

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