Saudi Arabia is said to have sought both ‘material and manpower’ from Pakistan to deal with Houthi rebels who have taken over large swathes of land in Yemen in a rebellion against the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The demand has put Islamabad in a difficult situation given the possible risks attached to getting embroiled in the bloody conflict in the Arabian Peninsula.
The formal request was made by senior Saudi officials in Riyadh to a high-powered Pakistani delegation, which wrapped up its two-day visit to the oil-rich kingdom on Wednesday.
The delegation, which comprised Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Premier’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz as well as representatives from three armed forces, held talks with top Saudi authorities, including Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz and Defence Minister Muhammad Salman bin Abdulaziz. The focus of discussions was on the current situation in Yemen and what possible role Pakistan could play in it.
Sources said Saudi officials gave a detailed briefing to the Pakistani delegation about the current situation in Yemen. They handed over a list containing details where Pakistan’s assistance is required. It is believed that Riyadh is keen to see Pakistan join the military alliance of Gulf states and take part in the combat operation.
Riyadh has not only asked for troops but also requested help from Pakistani fighter jets as well as navy vessels for logistic support. Arab News reported that the meeting discussed important issues concerning ‘Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen’ and assessed Pakistani participation in the Saudi-led operation to fight the Houthis.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said the Pakistani delegation held ‘positive’ talks with Saudi authorities. In a message on micro-blogging site Twitter he said the visit helped the delegation to have better understanding of the conflict in Yemen and the concerns of the ‘Saudi brethren’.
The minister said they would soon brief Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif about the outcome of the visit. However, he would not confirm whether the Saudis formally requested for Pakistani troops.
Senior Pakistani officials traveled to Riyadh after Saudi King Shah Salman bin Abdulaziz telephoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week seeking Islamabad’s help against Houthi rebels.
While the country’s civil and military leadership agreed to extend all possible support to Riyadh to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, there is no decision yet whether Pakistan will join the Saudi-led military alliance.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s request, Pakistani is still considering options. One official pointed out that Islamabad was seeking a political solution to the Yemen crisis while if the situation arises troops could be deployed inside Saudi Arabia to safeguard its key strategic installations as well as the holy places.
Pakistan is treading a careful path as on one hand it does not want to plainly refuse the Saudi request while at the same time it is seeking to avoid taking any decision that might put its relations at odds with Iran.
Tehran has already expressed concerns over Pakistan’s possible participation in the Saudi-led alliance against Houthi rebels in Yemen. In an effort to ensure a balancing act, Premier Nawaz may himself travel to Iran or send his special envoy before taking a final decision on the Yemen crises.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2015.