KARACHI: The recent decision to send Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia has raised eyebrows, even though the deployment was sanctioned by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as part of longstanding defence cooperation between Islamabad and Riyadh.
Currently, there are 1,379 Pakistani troops deployed in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are from Pakistan Army, along with a few Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Pakistan Navy (PN) officials, according to security sources. The exact number of troops being sent is not known, but the fresh deployment is said to be slightly over 1,000 soldiers.
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Security sources also clarified that there is nothing new about the deployment of Pakistani troop in the oil-rich kingdom, as defence cooperation with Saudi Arabia is based on a 1982 bilateral protocol for training and advisory roles.
After the announcement of troop deployment, rumours swirled in the media that the troops could be sent to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is actively involved in a war against Houthi rebels. Security sources, however, vehemently quashed the speculation, saying that no Pakistani boots will be on the ground in Yemen. They reiterated that troop deployments in the kingdom have been a regular feature for decades.
Defence cooperation in the Persian Gulf is not limited to Riyadh, as there is currently a deployment of 627 Pakistani military men in Qatar, including 165 from the army and 462 from the navy and air force. In fact, an addition of 292 army officials has been approved and they are awaiting deployment. This deployment is also for training and advisory purposes.
In Bahrain, Pakistan had stationed one infantry unit, comprising 653 soldiers and officers from 2008 to 2013. Currently, however, there are no Pakistani troops deployed in Manama.
Islamabad also maintains a similar working relationship with Iran, which currently has 10 pilots in training with the Pakistan military. The Iranians will be sending five more pilots “sometime in April”, and even “more in subsequent years”, according to security sources.
Pakistan has stayed away from the conflict in Yemen where Iran strongly opposes the involvement of the Saudi-led military coalition. In November last year, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Tehran where he met top Iranian civil and military leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani.
The army chief recalled the defence cooperation between Islamabad and Tehran in the past and said that similar collaboration in future had “great mutually benefiting potential”.
Meanwhile, Gen Bajwa has also visited Saudi Arabia five times in his first year in charge.
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Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been involved in a number of joint training exercises in recent months, the most recent being a joint naval exercise in Karachi codenamed Affa Al-Sahil, which concluded on Friday.
The exercise has been performed annually since 2011 and aims to enhance interoperability and sharpen tactical proficiency in countering maritime human trafficking, piracy and terrorism.
Meanwhile, Exercise ‘Dera Al Sahil’ is currently under way between Pak Marines and RSNF Marines. It is taking place in Saudi waters.
This exercise is aimed at enhancing skills in relation to coastal defence.
Earlier, in November and December, Pakistani and Saudi Special Forces participated in the joint counterterrorism exercise Al-Shehab-2 at Prince Naif Security City in Riyadh.
The two-week exercise was a follow-up to Al-Shehab 1, which was held in Pakistan a year earlier. A Pakistani contingent comprising 68 special services group (SSG) officers and soldiers participating in Al-Shehab-2. The venue for the annual exercise alternates, meaning that the next one will be held in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in March, around 21 countries including Pakistan, the US, and the UK will be participating in a military exercise in KSA named Gulf Shield.
It is also of note that Saudi special services participated in the last Pakistan Day parade, while there are currently 200 Saudi cadets in the Pakistan Military Academy, PAF Academy, and Naval Academy.
On the same note, a source said that last year, close to 1,500 Saudi officers and soldiers were trained in Pakistan, mostly by the interior ministry.
The other Military exercises held with the kingdom in 2017 include Al Samsaam, which was an army exercise in Pakistan, Aces Meet, which was an air force exercise in Pakistan, a strategic planning exercise involving National Defence University and Saudi authorities in the kingdom, and an engineers’ exercise involving Pakistan Army and Royal Saudi Land Forces