Shahbaz in Riyadh on damage control mission

CM-led delegation will explore possibilities of meeting Saudi demand

Kamran Yousaf April 16, 2015
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif meets with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. PHOTO: INP


Notwithstanding Pakistani parliament’s vote against jumping into the Yemen fray, the Saudis are believed to have been still pushing Islamabad to join the nine-nation military coalition Riyadh has cobbled together to quell the Houthi insurrection at its doorstep.

A high-powered delegation, led by Punjab Chief Minister Shabhaz Sharif, was informed by senior Saudi officials on Wednesday that Pakistan’s military support was crucial to achieving the desired results in Yemen.

The delegation, also comprising Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry as well as senior military officials, first held talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Jeddah and then flew to Riyadh for a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz to discuss the current situation in Yemen.

The delegation is on a damage control mission after parliament voted against joining the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Shahbaz’s inclusion in the delegation has raised many eyebrows but sources said the prime minister wanted to use his ‘strong family connections’ with the royal family for limiting the damage.

Saudi Arabia may have publicly described parliament’s resolution as Pakistan’s internal matter, but privately it has expressed its displeasure over the unexpected ‘snub’.

Riyadh conveyed its disquiet through diplomatic channels to the government that prompted Premier Nawaz to himself issue a ‘clarification’ and send the delegation led by his younger brother to the kingdom, said an official familiar with the development.

The delegation will explore the possibilities of meeting the Saudi demand while at the same time making sure that it does not have any backlash at home.  Saudi Arabia is understood to have been still pushing Pakistan to considerably contribute to its campaign against Houthi rebels.

“They [Saudis] clearly want us to be visible in their military campaign,” said the official. But, Pakistan is wary of taking a clear position and hence is trying to find the middle ground.

Why Pakistani troops important

Saudi Arabia is currently leading the nine-member coalition of Gulf states against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The coalition has been using airpower to weaken the Houthis inside Yemen.

But in the event of a ground offensive they are desperately looking for help from Pakistan and Turkey, said a defence source. “The reason is that the Saudis think that without military support from Pakistan and Turkey for ground operation, they may not be able to achieve the desired results,” the source added.

But according to Pakistan’s assessment Saudi Arabia might have committed a ‘blunder’ in launching the military campaign in Yemen. That is one of the reasons Islamabad is following a cautious approach despite initial commitment given by the prime minister to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

According to a brief given to the delegation, Islamabad suggested Riyadh find a political solution to the Yemen conflict instead of prolonging the military campaign. At the same time, Pakistan assured the Saudi leadership of all the necessary assistance, including troops, if at any stage its territorial integrity and sovereignty is violated.

Pakistan welcomes UNSC resolution on Yemen

In yet another attempt to pacify the growing anger of the Gulf states, Pakistan on Wednesday welcomed the UN Security Council resolution seeking imposition of an arms embargo on the Houhtis.

“Pakistan is pleased to note that this GCC-led initiative in the Security Council conforms with Pakistan’s stated position on the situation in Yemen, in particular our strong support for the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen and the legitimate Government of President Hadi, condemnation of the actions of the Houthis and our call for resolution of the situation through inclusive dialogue,” said a statement issued by the foreign ministry.

“Pakistan calls for full and effective implementation of the resolution,” the statement added.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2015.

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