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Pakistan's Yemen dilemma

Shamil ShamsMarch 30, 2015

In the coming days, Pakistan is likely to join the Saudi-led military action against Yemen's Shiite rebels. What will be the consequences of this potential move for a country already reeling from sectarian violence?

Anti-Houthi protesters hold posters of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud during a demonstration to show support for Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, in the country's southwestern city of Taiz March 29, 2015. Saudi Arabia has rallied Sunni Muslim Arab countries in an air campaign to support Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who relocated to Aden in February and is now in Riyadh after leaving Yemen in the past week (Photo: REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub)
Image: Reuters/Anees Mahyoub

"Will Saudi Arabia send its armed forces to Pakistan's help if India decides to attack the Islamic republic?" Pakistani intellectual and analyst Salman Asif writes on Facebook.

The South Asian country's intelligentsia and civil society have voiced their displeasure and concern over Pakistan's potential involvement in the Saudi Arabia-Yemen conflict.

Last week, the Saudi kingdom formally requested Islamabad to participate in the fight against Yemen's Shiite rebels, who have captured the capital Sanaa and a number of key cities in the Sunni-dominated country. Riyadh and its Middle Eastern allies launched air strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen on March 26, saying it was "defending the legitimate government" of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Riyadh accuses Iran of backing Houthi militias, an allegation Tehran vehemently denies.

"Pakistan should not get involved in the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry," Musharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based foreign policy expert, told DW. "We must not forget that Riyadh and Tehran have their own interests, therefore the Pakistani government, too, should do what is best for the country. It must keep good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran," he added.

Army chief Raheel Sharif and PM Nawaz Sharif
Pakistan's military and civilian leadership expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia in the wake of Riyadh's Yemen attacksImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

An unbreakable bond

But it's easier said than done. Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan's biggest financers in the world, and the Pakistani civilian and military leadership have very close ties with the Saudi monarchs. It will not be easy for Pakistan to maintain a non-partisan stand in such a conflict.

In a high-level official meeting in Islamabad on March 27, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that "any threat to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan." The meeting was attended by Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, Adviser to Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman.

On the other hand, Islamabad's relations with Tehran have been tense for many years. The two countries have border conflicts, and Tehran is also not very pleased with Islamabad's alleged support to various Sunni militant groups, which have been involved in launching attacks in Iran's eastern areas, and massacring the Shiite citizens inside Pakistan.

"It is obvious that the Pakistani-Iranian ties have not been cordial for quite some time. However, if the Pakistani government decides to send its troops to aid the Saudi-led coalition against Houthis in Yemen, the relations will likely get acrimonious," Tariq Pirzada, another foreign affairs expert in Islamabad, told DW.

Pirzada maintains that considering the close Saudi-Pakistani ties, it will be impossible for Islamabad to decline Riyadh's request: "The question now is that what kind of assistance will be given to Saudi Arabia. Will Pakistan offer air support, send ground troops, or help in some other way?"

No choice

But whether Pakistan joins the Middle Eastern "Operation Storm of Resolve" is not simply a logistical question; its nature is hugely political. The sectarian Shiite-Sunni strife in Pakistan is already on the rise, with militant Islamist groups unleashing terror on the minority Shiite groups in many parts of the country. Most of these outfits, including the Taliban, take inspiration from the hard-line Saudi-Wahabi Islamic ideology. Political observers say that Iran, too, is backing a number of Shiite factions, some of which are heavily armed.

Many Pakistani analysts trace the origins of sectarian violence in Pakistan to the Afghan War of the 1980s. They say that Pakistan's former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq made it a state policy to fund and arm extremist Wahabi groups in the 1980s, using these organizations against the Shiites to smother Iran's support in Pakistan and to increase Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan.

Abdul Sattar, a Pakistani journalist and political commentator, says that the Pakistani state's decision to become a party in the Afghan war caused immense sectarian divisions in the country, and if it chooses to participate in another regional war this time, there will be repercussions beyond anyone's imagination.

"We have hundreds of Saudi-backed madrassahs (Islamic seminaries) and militant outfits in Pakistan due to the fact that we fought a war on behalf of Riyadh and the American CIA in Afghanistan against the infidel communists. Now, we are preparing to fight another Saudi war against infidel Shiites in Yemen. Just imagine how many more Islamist groups will spring up in the country because to this," Sattar said, adding that Pakistan's involvement in the Yemen conflict would also embolden the Taliban and other Sunni groups in the country. "Forget about acting against the Tailban and al Qaeda; Pakistan's participation in the Yemen conflict will give these groups a new life, a new impetus."

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in the Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan (Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud, File/AP/dapd)
Any involvment in the Yemen conflict will further embolden the militant Sunni groups in PakistanImage: AP

A 'Sunni Wall'

But Siegfried O. Wolf, an expert at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, says that Pakistan will likely continue with its support for Saudi Arabia and the Sunni extremist groups due to various strategic reasons.

"For Pakistan's Islamic fundamentalists, the country is already a 'Sunni Wall' against Shiite Iran," O. Wolf told DW. "The policy of containing the Shiite influence in the region was seriously affected after the collapse of the Sunni-Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. These events created a power vacuum which is now being increasingly filled by Tehran. Saudi Arabia does not want to see the rise of Iran and will continue to do anything to ensure Sunni dominance," he added.

The expert believes that Pakistan's international relations and its regional position are getting more complicated by the day and the country's rulers are aware of it. "The likelihood of a US-Iranian convergence, the ongoing China-Russia rapprochement, an increased cooperation between Tehran and New Delhi, and the situation in Afghanistan are signs of changing regional dynamics. The Pakistani establishment is unhappy with these developments," O. Wolf underlined, adding that these new security paradigms might force Islamabad to forge even closer ties with Saudi Arabia.