Pakistan parliament rejects Saudi call to join Yemen coalition

Pakistan parliament rejects Saudi call to join Yemen coalition
6 min read
10 April, 2015
Pakistan parliament has voted to remain 'neutral' in the Yemen conflict after an intense debate as the country manoeuvres its way between loyalties to Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Religious activists in Karachi shout slogans of loyalty to Saudi Arabia (Getty)
Pakistan's parliament on Friday urged the government to stay out of the conflict in Yemen, rejecting Saudi demands for Islamabad to join its coalition against Houthi rebels.

A unanimous resolution passed by a special session of parliament backed the government's commitment to protect Saudi Arabia's territory, which has so far not been threatened by the conflict.

But it said Pakistan should play a mediating role and not get involved in fighting - turning down longstanding ally Riyadh's request for troops, ships and warplanes.

"[The] Parliament of Pakistan... underscores the need for continued efforts by the government of Pakistan to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis," the resolution said.

Earlier in the week, Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif flew to Pakistan appealing to the government not to heed calls from Saudi Arabia to join the military coalition fighting in Yemen. 

Since the beginning of the week Pakistani MPs have been debating whether or not to lend their military weight to the Saudi led operations in Yemen and the prevailing attitude has been from reticence to out right rejection.

Resistance within the parliament as well as the country's significant overlapping interests with neighbouring Iran place Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government in a difficult bind with regards to their deep pocketed and powerful ally Saudi Arabia.  
     The Yemen war is not our war...Our advice to the government is that the army should not go

The powerhouse of the GCC has pulled together a coalition of Sunni states, with US support, to launch Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis and their supporters in Yemen and it has requested that Pakistan provide ships, troops and aircraft for the effort.

Pakistan however remains decidedly undecided about joining the storm.

Saudi Arabia announced in late March that Pakistan would join the Sunni coalition only for that to be immediately denied by the Pakistani foreign ministry. 

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has since said he will defend Saudi Arabia's "territorial integrity" but not spelled out what, if any, commitments he has made.

The prospect of Pakistan becoming embroiled in the conflict has caused a stir of controversy amidst fears that it could harm the country's own regional interests, inflame sectarian tensions within its own borders and draw the military into a costly quagmire not of its making.

Keeping Saudi sweet

During the deliberations in parliament opposition MP Shireen Mazari reflected, Wednesday, the oft repeated sentiment, "The Yemen war is not our war...Our advice to the government is that the army should not go."

"As Muslims, we are duty bound to counter any threat to the holy shrines but there is no such threat today," she said.

Pakistan's ties to Saudi Arabia run deep with a long history of economic and military support.

Saudi Arabia, for example, gave oil to Pakistan in 1998 to help it weather international sanctions after it conducted a nuclear test and Riyadh also saved current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he was overthrown from a previous premiership in a coup in 1999.

There are already some Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia but the exact nature of the security commitment from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia is opaque, at best, which only fuels speculation that their may be a "nuclear component".

Pakistan received last year alone $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia and some two millionPakistani families are reliant on remittances from the oil rich kingdom. 

Despite the entrenched economic and strategic links between the two country's Pakistan has stalled in its response to the Saudi requests agitating fears in the kingdom that their ally may not deliver in their hour of need.  

Last week Pakistan’s defence minister Khawaja Asif flew to Riyadh to try and allay these concerns within the House of Saud, but still no commitment was made. 

Saudi Arabia spends vast sums on arms but has a limited track record of testing the capacity and resolve of its armed forces in combat.

Pakistan on the other hand has a highly trained and experienced professional army that has on more than one occasion protected Saudi Arabia and its regional interests.
Balancing interests

While Pakistan's leadership is beholden to Saudi Arabia for its considerable support the country also shares a long border with Iran and has many reasons to maintain good relations with its neighbour. 
     We are willing to have the necessary cooperation with Pakistan in the settlement of regional issues

Iran is Saudi Arabia's arch nemesis and the two regional powers and their proxies are pitted against each other in wars across the region, such as in Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.

Foreign minister Javad Zarif will be keen to ensure during his visit to Islamabad that Pakistan does not lend its weight to the Saudi led coalition in Yemen.

He will have a solid legacy of mutual support and interest to call on in his efforts. Iran was after all the first country to officially recognise the sovereignty of Pakistan upon its independence in 1947. 

Iran has consitently offered its support to Pakistan in its conflict with its arch rival India and in 2010 Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appealed to Muslims worldwide to back the "Freedom struggle" in Jammu and Kashmir against, "aggression by the Indian occupying armed forces."

Pakistan for its part has supported Iran's stance on its nuclear energy program, maintaining that Iran has the right to develop its nuclear program within the constraints of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. 

In 2010, then Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi justified Iran's nuclear program as peaceful and argued that Iran had "no justification" to pursue nuclear weapons, citing the lack of any immediate threat to Iran.

Islamabad is also wary of disrupting its sizeable trade with Iran or their intertwined energy interests in central Asia. 

Playing the broker

Pakistan already suffers from the sectarian enmity broiling throughout the region and fuelled by the Saudi-Iranian competition for influence. 

The Yemen conflict involves a complex array of local players but it is rapidly turning into another theatre of proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, hence Pakistan's reticence to get drawn into the heart of the conlflict.

Prime Minister Sharif has made bold statements about protecting Saudi Arabia and it is likely that Pakistan will bolster its support in the kingdom, but reflecting on the discussions in parliament the chances of overt support within Yemen appear increasingly slim.

Iran has expressed interest on working with Pakistan on ending the Yemen dispute with the Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli saying at a ceremony at Pakistan Embassy in Tehran on Sunday night, “We are willing to have the necessary cooperation with Pakistan in the settlement of regional issues, particularly the issue of Yemen.”

Iran's Zarif met with Pakistan's Prime Minister, Thursday and called for a "comprehensive political solution" leading to an inclusive government through Yemeni dialgue.
Pitting itself as a broker in discussions may well yet offer Pakistan the ascape hatch it needs from the requests of military involvement from its allies in Riyadh.