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Analysis: Several Factors Motivate Saudi Outreach to Pakistan

A Saudi soldier loads ammunition at their position at Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, April 6, 2015.
A Saudi soldier loads ammunition at their position at Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, April 6, 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s bid to get Pakistani military support for the Saudi-led effort against Houthi rebels in Yemen is designed to “scare” the Iranians, says Charles Schmitz, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.

Schmitz says Pakistan would be a much greater threat to Iran than the Saudis are. He said bringing Pakistan in “increases the pressure on the Iranians,” who are backing the Houthi rebels.

“The Pakistanis are very effective. They are militarily accomplished,” said Schmitz. “They are trained and disciplined and “battle-ready units,” he said.

Saudi Arabia Steps Up After Yemen Spins into Chaos

A Saudi-led regional coalition began launching airstrikes against the Houthi rebels last month. The rebels seized control of the capital, Sana’a, in September. They began marching on the southern city of Aden last month.

Yemen’s U.S.-backed leader, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, left the country last month and went to Riyadh.

The Pakistani parliament is considering the Saudi request to provide ground troops as well as air and naval support.

The country’s defense minister, Khwaja Muhammad Asif, told parliament on Monday that the country’s decision would “reflect the wishes of the people of Pakistan.”

“I want to reiterate that Pakistan has pledged to defend the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia and, if needed, Pakistan will fulfill this pledge,” he added.

U.S. Takes Neutral Stance

At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to weigh in on whether Pakistani involvement would be beneficial or destabilizing.

“Every country can make their own decisions about whether to join these kinds of efforts. The same goes for the Pakistanis,” said Harf.

Several Motives Behind Saudi Request

Nabeel Khoury, an analyst at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center does not think Pakistani involvement would be destabilizing. But he says adding Pakistan would be “overkill.”

“All [of] these countries that Saudi Arabia is adding have a more sophisticated military, specifically the Arab countries of Morocco, Jordan and Egypt,” said Khouri.

He said there are other motives behind Saudi Arabia’s decision to reach out to Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia has extended financial assistance to Pakistan to help with its troubled economy. Also, the Saudi royal family provided shelter to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he was ousted in a 1999 military coup.

“Riyadh likes to keep Pakistan on tap,” said Khouri. “They have a special relationship,” he said.

But Schmitz says Saudi Arabia’s decision to try to engage Pakistan may be more of a reflection of its concern about widening Iranian influence in the region.

He said Saudi Arabia is concerned that the nuclear talks that are under way between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany could lead to rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran.

Schmitz said the Saudis are clearly worried about this possible outcome.

He said the Saudi decision to lead the regional coalition fight against the Iran-backed Houthis is a “Saudi defense pact.”

“It is a means for them to assert their ability to defend themselves without the United States, and to not take directions from the United States,” he said.

The U.S. has not indicated that a nuclear deal with Iran would lead to closer engagement with Tehran on other issues.