Saudi request for help in Yemen puts Nawaz in a bind

Published: April 6, 2015
PM Nawaz owes the Saudis; SA sheltered him after he was overthrown in 1999 military coup. PHOTO: AFP

PM Nawaz owes the Saudis; SA sheltered him after he was overthrown in 1999 military coup. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: The Parliament will begin debating a Saudi plea for military help in Yemen on Monday, a request that pits Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s staunch Saudi allies against a war-weary public.

Since Saudi Arabia asked Pakistan to join a Saudi-led military coalition that began conducting air strikes last month against largely Shia Houthi forces in Yemen, PM Nawaz has hedged his bets.

He had said repeatedly he will defend any threat to Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” without defining what action such a threat might provoke.

“They’re looking to satisfy Saudi expectations at a minimal level,” said Arif Rafiq, a Washington-based adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute. “They’re unlikely to be part of any meaningful action inside Yemen. Maybe they will reinforce the (Saudi) border.”

PM Nawaz owes the Saudis. Endemic tax dodging means Pakistan needs regular injections of foreign cash to avoid economic meltdown. Last year, the Saudis gave Pakistan $1.5 billion. Saudi Arabia also sheltered Nawaz after he was overthrown in a 1999 military coup.

But joining the Saudi-led coalition could inflame a sectarian conflict at home where around a fifth of the population is Shia and attacks on Shias are increasing, further destabilizing the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people.

The intervention of the government would probably also anger Shia power Iran, which shares a long and porous border in a region roiling with its own separatist insurgency. Pakistan’s other main borders are with arch enemy India and Afghanistan, where the country troops are already conducting anti-Taliban operations. The Iranian foreign minister will visit Islamabad this week.

Not Saudi’s handmaiden

The public opinion of Pakistani nationals is also largely against intervention in any Saudi-led action in Yemen.

“It must be remembered that Pakistan is not Saudi Arabia’s handmaiden, doing its bidding at the flick of a wrist,” said a Friday editorial in The Express Tribune.

Read: Putting the brakes on

Many analysts say the military, which has ruled Pakistan for over half its existence since independence, has the final call. So far, the generals have been silent.

Pakistan has nearly 1.5 million active soldiers and reserves, but around a third of those are tied up with operations along the Afghan border. The bulk of the remaining forces face off with nuclear-armed India. Others are executing the government’s new counter-terrorism plan.

Even though Saudi Arabia is a “special friend” of both the government and the military, Pakistani intervention in Yemen might be unwise, said retired Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former national security adviser.

“If it was to defend Saudi Arabia against aggression, in spite of our commitments, I think we would stretch to sending troops,” he said. “To send our troops to a third country – I think that would be foolhardy.

“Either way, it is an absolutely terrible choice to be made for Pakistan.”

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Reader Comments (19)

  • SK
    Apr 6, 2015 - 11:46AM

    Go for full support to Saudi Arabia. Any half hearted approach will destroy the trust and relationship with GCC. NO IFs & BUTs. This is the right time to tell the Muslim world that Pakistan has the strongest Army and is represented by 80% of Sunnis. Most of the TV anchors representing Shia sect and opposing this support should be over-heard. This can be a big game changer. Learn from Turkey. Recommend

  • Apr 6, 2015 - 2:13PM

    Its the mindset like yours, we are in this mess in the first place. Period !Recommend

  • Lord
    Apr 6, 2015 - 3:06PM

    What shia sunni are you doing . Any sane can decide against being getting involved. You love them so much go their by your self. Recommend

  • Ayesha
    Apr 6, 2015 - 3:07PM

    @Sarmad Hassan: We are in this mess because of 1979 Islamic revolution in our neighbouring country. So you better mind your own business.Recommend

  • Apr 6, 2015 - 3:21PM

    Let us wait for the decision of the joint session of the Parliament. What is decided by the parliament, should be followed.Recommend

  • Aamir
    Apr 6, 2015 - 3:57PM

    Nawaz came to power complaining that Musharraf was overwhelmed by a single phone call. At that time, UN resolution had called for every possible support to Allied action against Afghan Taliban/Al Qaeda.

    But Nawaz said, he should not have given up to the pressure if he were the PM then.
    What a shame and a sham Nawaz is that on his time, all the army, govt, opposition, everyone is saying don’t join this mess, when he is the only person willing to climb in just because of his personal relations with Saudis. No sane country in the world will join this coalition. Recommend

  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Apr 6, 2015 - 4:12PM

    No ifs and buts and please don’t call it a Saudi plea. Also our friendship and brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia are not because of Nawaz Sharif. This is a biggest lie that our intellectuals and writers are speaking and writing. Four million Pakistanis working in Middle East are not sponsored through Mian family and Pakistan is getting Saudi help long before Mian family’s relations with Saudi regime. Recommend

  • Nida
    Apr 6, 2015 - 4:21PM

    Basically, the coward, wealth ridden saudies want rental soldiers to come to their land and die for them so they keep on continue to ride their Bentlies and Roles, keep on acting like feroon on their poor labour? Pay back time mr. nawaz. Think wisely. On one hand you have Pakistan army soldiers dealing with internal issues and on the other hand you have your future escape door which you need to be kept wide openRecommend

  • Apr 6, 2015 - 4:42PM

    Yes i agree with this postRecommend

  • Rex Minor
    Apr 6, 2015 - 5:41PM

    Either you are with us or against us is what George W learnt from the house of Saud, which threatened the American administration to cut off the oil supplies to the USA? Pakistan is on the hook, are they with the Sunni Wahabis or against them who regard Shias as the enemy of their Islam. This is not so simple as the ” To be or not to be”.A real challenge for the Pakistan military to fight the rag tag Houthis.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • Ibrar
    Apr 6, 2015 - 6:09PM

    Keeping in mind our close ties with the Saudis including their help during our troubled times I think Pakistan should extend its military support ….and only if Saudi territory is attacked. Otherwise throwing bombs on the Yemeni rebels (as they are called) killing their men, women and children inside Yemen would be no less than committing an unforgivable sin.Recommend

  • Ahmed Saeed
    Apr 6, 2015 - 7:38PM

    @Ayesha and Sarmad
    We are in the mess because of both. No need to send troops. Deploying military observers can do much.Recommend

  • Ahmed Saeed
    Apr 6, 2015 - 7:39PM

    Mr PM please save your business. Allah will save Pakistan as it is happening for the last 68 years.Recommend

  • Apr 6, 2015 - 8:48PM

    Let me put it straight. So basically you are blaming the Islamic revolution in Iran for the current state of the country? Amazing! Recommend

  • qbc
    Apr 6, 2015 - 11:49PM

    wroung as normal we are in this mess because we got involved in afganistan in the early 80s. Also pakistan is in this mess because of terrorists like you shame on you and your ilk.Recommend

  • N
    Apr 7, 2015 - 12:39AM

    Comments without spending money only bla bla bla
    Source of power is Pakistan Army and they will decide
    Nation is behind our Pak Army
    Comentators may sleep peacefullyRecommend

  • woody
    Apr 7, 2015 - 5:11AM

    @Aamir: American’s never asked Pakistan to go to war in Afghanistan or move troops to USA to help defend after 911 – they asked Pakistan to deny terrorist sanctuary, take control of territory you consider “sovereign”, and quit using terrorist as “strategic assets”. Not all that controversial outside of Pakistan and in hindsight – spot on.Recommend

  • Mirza
    Apr 7, 2015 - 8:52AM

    NS has no problem when it comes to sending our troops to help protect the Saudi citizens from sending their own army. Establishment is with NS and now PTI and joined in as well. Time to prove who is most loyal to Kings and Sheiks even in their blatant aggression.
    Houti are Yemenis and foreigners are bombing their capital city it is not the other way around. Recommend

  • Apr 7, 2015 - 1:20PM

    Yes i agree with this Recommend

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