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How long can Pakistan stay out of Yemen fight?

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and its allies to reverse Parliament’s vote last week to remain neutral in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, on Monday once again pledged to deploy Pakistan’s military if Houthi rebels in Yemen threatened Saudi Arabian territory.

But Sharif, who owes his political career and perhaps his life to Saudi intervention in Pakistani affairs, didn’t suggest that he intended to commit forces now – in spite of angry denunciations of the Pakistani stand over the weekend. Instead, he tried to parry the criticism by saying Arab Persian Gulf nations were misinterpreting the intention of Parliament’s resolution, which called for Pakistan to remain neutral in the Yemeni conflict and provide forces only to defend Saudi Arabia. The resolution passed unanimously.

“Pakistan does not abandon friends and strategic partners, especially at a time when their security is under threat,” Sharif said in a short televised statement, made after consultations with Pakistan’s powerful army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif. The two men are not related.

“We stand with Saudi Arabia, shoulder to shoulder,” the prime minister said.

Sharif said Pakistan was also “in touch” with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the grouping of Arab states in the Persian Gulf, in an effort to ease what he called the group’s “disappointment ” with Parliament’s vote not to send troops.

Pakistan’s decision not to join the Yemen campaign shocked Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, which were so confident Pakistan would join them in a bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels that they displayed Pakistan’s flag in the Saudi military press center.

But opposition arose almost immediately to involvement in the campaign among Pakistanis, who feared joining a push by Sunni Muslim Arab states against a Shiite Muslim rebel group would exacerbate the country’s own Sunni-Shiite split. There were also concerns about appearing to side with Saudi Arabia in a proxy war with Iran, with which Pakistan shares a lengthy border.

The United Arab Emirates, one of the Gulf states participating in the Saudi-led Yemen campaign, issued a harsh denunciation of the Pakistani Parliament’s vote, with the UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, calling it “contradictory . . . dangerous and unexpected.”

In an Arab-language tweet, he said Pakistan must decide “in favor of its strategic relations with the GCC” or pay a “heavy price.”

Pakistan’s interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, called Gargash’s criticism “an unacceptable insult to Pakistan’s national pride.”

But how long Sharif can resist Saudi insistence that he commit Pakistan’s military, the largest in the Muslim world, to the Yemen campaign is an open question. On Sunday, the Saudi minister for religious affairs, Saleh bin Abdulaziz, arrived in Islamabad bearing “an important message” from King Salman.

“Saudi Arabia expects a Pakistani decision to the better,” he said – meaning agreeing to Saudi Arabia’s request for ground forces, warplanes and naval ships in support of the kingdom’s campaign in Yemen.

In his statement Monday, Sharif said he was consulting closely with Saudi Arabia on threats to its territorial integrity. And while he did not budge on Parliament’s recommendation not to send troops, he indicated that a decision – he can make it without Parliament’s approval – would rest on Saudi Arabia’s assessment of a threat.

“We have already intensified our contacts with Saudi Arabia, to monitor the ongoing situation,” he said – a day after Saudi Arabia reported Houthi forces had fired mortars at Saudi forces inside the kingdom.

The economic costs for Pakistan could be real if Sharif does not bow to the Saudi demands. More than 3 million Pakistanis work in Persian Gulf countries, most of them in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the earnings they send home support multigenerational households that likely account for more than 30 million of Pakistan’s estimated population of 200 million people.

Workers’ remittances in U.S. dollar-pegged Gulf currencies also are crucial to Pakistan’s ability to meet its balance of payments obligations, which it struggles with despite constant assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Gulf Cooperation Council governments could easily issue a directive to reduce Pakistani employment by 10 percent, creating a wave of resentment that could destabilize Sharif’s government – a step that one political commenter, Najam Sethi, called “blackmail.”

Saudi Arabia last year gave Pakistan a $1.5 billion interest-free loan to shore up plunging foreign exchange reserves and arrest a sudden depreciation of the rupee.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council perhaps had every reason to believe Pakistan would readily join in the anti-Houthi campaign. Pakistan deployed forces in defense of Saudi Arabia against a Yemeni incursion in the 1960s. It deployed thousands of troops in the kingdom and other GCC countries during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war against the threat of Iranian retaliation for their support to Iraq. It did so again in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s forces occupied Kuwait.

In return, the Gulf Cooperation Council has repeatedly bailed out Pakistan during times of economic crisis, notably supplying it for two years with 50,000 barrels a day of crude oil to counter the imposition of Western sanctions in May 1998 after Pakistan conducted nuclear weapons tests.

This time, however, Pakistan did not embrace the Saudi campaign. Pakistani public opinion viewed Yemeni developments as a conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, amid fears that participation in the Yemen conflict could fuel already dangerous levels of sectarian violence in Pakistan.

Instead, Sharif and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 3 launched a diplomatic initiative to arrange a cease-fire in Yemen.

Iran’s leadership broadly agreed to the proposal when Erdogan visited Tehran last week, but Saudi Arabia and its Arab League partners have rejected it outright.

The UAE’s Gargash, in his reaction to the Friday vote of Pakistan’s Parliament, made clear he had no use for peace entreaties. “Tehran seems to be more important to Islamabad and Ankara than the Gulf countries,” he said, referring to Iran, Pakistan and Turkey by their capital cities, respectively.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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