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Pakistan Walks Tightrope Over Yemen Crisis

  • Ayesha Tanzeem

When Saudi Arabia calls Pakistan for help in its hour of need, the bell rings loudly, especially in the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who owes his freedom, and some say his life, to the Saudi royal family.

They intervened to get him out of jail and into exile in Saudi Arabia, after a 1999 military coup against him by General Pervez Musharraf.

Personal favors aside, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also a longtime economic benefactor to the country. It has bailed out Pakistan many times during tough economic situations and natural disasters with either cash or oil. As recently as last year, it provided $1.5 billion to shore up Pakistan's dwindling foreign exchange reserves. It's also a strong source of jobs for Pakistanis.

So it is not easy for Sharif to deny the kingdom’s recent "request" for Pakistan to join its coalition in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

A government statement issued after a high-level meeting Thursday – chaired by the prime minister and attended by the army chief – provided a glimpse into how Pakistan may be trying to balance the difficult task of keeping Saudi Arabia happy while not aggravating Iran or overextending the Pakistani army.

The statement stressed the need for a "peaceful resolution" to the Yemen crisis. It promised a policy guided by "national interest," but it also mentioned "close historical cultural and religious affinities" with Saudi Arabia. It assured a "strong response [if] Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity" is violated.

Many analysts believe this indicates Pakistan may be ready to send a small contingent into Saudi Arabia to take up defensive positions, but not take part in offensive operations in Yemen.

Sharif will convene a joint session of parliament Monday to discuss the matter further.

Oil lubricates relationship

Pakistan has much at stake in its relationship with the Saudi kingdom, not least of which is oil.

Saudi Arabia is the source of most of Pakistan’s oil imports and a job provider to hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who work there.

Ashfaque Hasan Khan, a former economic adviser to the Pakistan government, said these workers send back $4 billion to $5 billion every year.

"Saudi Arabia has emerged as the single largest source of workers' remittances for Pakistan," he said. Add to the mix other gulf countries that are part of the Saudi coalition, and the amount goes up to $5 billion or $6 billion.

Saudi influence in Pakistan comes from more than just money. Many Pakistanis feel an emotional attachment to the country that is home to Islam’s holiest sites.

Competing interests

But Pakistan has to consider other interests, too.

Iran, which is widely believed to be backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen against the Saudi-backed government, shares a 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province.

Iran’s foreign ministry sent for Pakistan’s ambassador in Tehran, Noor Mohammad Janemani, to express its concern and warn of complications that might arise over Pakistan joining the Saudi-led Yemen coalition. When questioned about it, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam said the Pakistani ambassador regularly goes to the Iranian foreign ministry several times a week.

Pakistan's defense minister confirmed during a live interview on the local TV channel Geo News Thursday evening that Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is coming to Pakistan next week for a previously unscheduled visit to discuss Tehran's concerns over Yemen.

Border insecurities

Adding to this complication, two of Pakistan’s four borders already are considered insecure.

One is with India, with whom Pakistan has fought four wars and trades intermittent fire across the de facto border – the so-called Line of Control – in the disputed Kashmir region. The other is with Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s army is trying to control cross-border terrorism.

The Pakistani army also is fighting the Pakistani Taliban or the TTP and other violent extremists responsible for thousands of terrorist attacks and tens of thousands of casualties.

Some of these extremist groups also have targeted the country’s minority Shiite population, leaving them feeling vulnerable. Many fear Pakistan’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict might increase Shiite-Sunni tensions in the country.

Reflecting on history

Syed Mushahid Hussain, the Senate Defense Committee chairman, said Pakistan needs to take a page from its own history during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

"Iraq’s strongman of the period, Saddam Hussain, was backed by the same Arab coalition which is currently in Yemen," Hussain said. The Pakistani leader at the time, General Zia ul Haq, had similarly good relations with Saudi Arabia.

According to Syed Mushahid Hussain, it took "deft diplomacy" and "a realistic foreign policy" to achieve "that fine balance between the two: our neighbor and our strategic ally."

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