Displaying items by tag: yemen - Afro-Middle East Centre

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Although the United Arab Emirates recently announced that its troops would no longer be involved in Yemen’s civil war, the conflict in that hapless country endures. A ceasefire, which had held between April and August has crumpled, largely due to the collapse of the most recent round of peace talks in Kuwait City. Although calls have been made for a simultaneous, two-track, military and political approach, the plan recently mooted by US secretary of state John Kerry is mostly a rehash of the failed June Kuwait three-point plan, with minor adjustments.

 

Militarily, a balance of power has emerged. Progress for both parties, the Hadi coalition and that of the Houthis, has been slow and subject to reversals, resulting in worsening conditions for ordinary Yemenis. Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions risk starvation; tens of thousands of refugees have fled the country. For a solution to be found that allows Yemen to emerge united, the nuances within the two blocs need to be considered and addressed in an inclusive manner, and the problem of spoilers will need to be dealt with.

 map of yemen

 

Different actors, competing interests

Generally regarded as a conflict pitting Iranian-backed Houthis (or Ansarallah) against a Saudi-backed Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi coalition, Yemen’s conflict is contested by a variety of actors with varying agendas. The Houthi coalition consists of its own fighters as well as military units – particularly from the republican guard – loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from office in November 2011 by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Most of Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and certain northern tribes also form part of the coalition. The agendas of these groups for Yemen’s future differ, and are sometimes contradictory; opposition to Saudi intervention seems to be the only uniting factor. There have even been clashes between groups within this coalition. For example, Houthi and Saleh fighters clashed in March 2015, prior to the Saudi intervention, for control of the Raymat military base near Sana'a. The GPC also opposed the Houthi decision to dissolve the government in February 2015. The Houthi are suspicious of the GPC, partly based on Saleh having fought six wars against them between 2004 and 2010; and many in the GPC oppose the Houthi religious fervour. But both were aggrieved at being marginalised from governance after the 2011 GCC initiative which saw Saleh transfer control to Hadi. The Houthis and GPC participated in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) between March 2012 and January 2014, which was to chart a future for the country, but they realised that Hadi controlled the day-to-day running of the state, and that the process was stalling. Iran supports the Houthi-GPC coalition, more in terms of moral and political support, rather than military or financial assistance.

 

The Hadi alliance is even more disparate, including the southern secessionist Hirak movement, participatory Islamists such as Yemen’s Islah party, and former GPC officials such as Hadi and a group based in Riyadh. Some Salafis, especially from Taiz, and northern tribes – including the powerful Hashed tribe led by Hashim Al-Ahmar – are also in the coalition. The aims of these various groups are diametrically opposed: Hirak seeks the south’s secession, while Islah and Hadi want a unified Yemen. Hirak joined the coalition only because it regarded Houthi incursions into Aden in February 2014 as another attempt at Northern hegemony. Hirak’s members are mostly secular leftists, but a small pro-secessionist Salafi fringe is gradually emerging. Yemen was two separate political entities before 1990 when North and South Yemen reunited, leaving the northern elite dominant, causing tensions and engendering mistrust amongst southerners. A brief civil war between groups from north and south in 1994 paved the way for Sana'a to control Aden.

 

Formed in 1990, Islah (Reform party) includes tribal figures, businesspeople and Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) chapter. It was initially close to the former Saleh regime, but that relationship grew tenuous and in 2001 it coalesced with other parties to form the Joint Multi Party coalition (JMP). It was one of the first groups to support the Yemeni uprising in 2011, and benefited from the 2012-2014 transitional period. Its role in the current conflict could allow it to consolidate the group within Yemeni institutional politics, and to develop enough of a relationship with Saudi Arabia that the latter might reverse its March 2014 decision labelling Islah a terrorist organisation. Islah also includes Salafis from Taiz and tribal elements from Mirab who seek to protect their regions from northern domination.

 

The Hadi alliance will probably fragment once a deal is reached that ends the fighting. Apart from their differing positions on southern secession, Hadi’s legitimacy is also tenuous, with the levers of power, especially in the south, now held by Hirak members.

A coalition of ten countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have politically, financially and militarily backed the Hadi bloc and is responsible for Hadi retaking Aden in August-September 2015. The coalition even deployed ground troops to support Hadi. Saudi Arabia exaggeratedly paints the Houthis as an Iranian proxy in a context where it is fearful of Iran’s new role in the region following the Iranian nuclear deal. Different states within the Saudi-led coalition back different factions within the Hadi alliance; Saudi Arabia funded and armed Islah and the Ahmars, while the UAE, which wants to destroy the MB, worked with Hirak and its military wing, the Southern Resistance. The UAE’s decision to no longer deploy ground troops in frontline positions was mainly because Aden and other southern areas are relatively secure, and because it wants to strengthen Hirak and allied groups. It will thus remain involved in the conflict, propping up forces to oppose a revival of the MB.

 

Roots of the conflict

Even before the 2011 uprisings, conflict seemed to be on Yemen’s horizon. Corruption, a concentration of power, and Saleh’s intention to transfer power to his son Ahmad had caused much disquiet, especially from Islah and influential members of the Hashed tribe. The uprisings gave these movements impetus, and by mid-2011 threatened to erupt as the influential General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar and his first brigade changed allegiances. Fearing this would lead to a long civil war, the GCC secured a transitional agreement that saw Saleh hand over power to his deputy (Hadi) in exchange for immunity from prosecution. A national dialogue process was to formulate a new, more inclusive constitution, and Hadi’s term in office was to expire in February 2014.

 

The process was, however, flawed from its inception. Hadi and Islah benefited most, and a government comprising of GPC and JMP members (fifty per cent each) was formed. Hadi commenced restructuring the military and Saleh allies were removed from key posts, including from the republican guard and airforce, and replaced with Hadi allies. No one was held accountable for the 2011 events, and Saleh was allowed to remain in Yemen and head the GPC. This indicated too many that only a select few were benefiting from the transition, and that violence was the only means to secure representation. The problem was compounded by the ineffectiveness of the NDC, which was not fully representative and was perceived to be a means of stalling. Two Houthis attending the dialogue were assassinated in 2013-14 and southerners refused to participate as secession was not up for discussion. Government revenue plummeted as tribes from Mirab, often supported by Saleh sympathisers, halted Yemen’s oil and liquefied natural gas production. Social services were non-existent and insecurity and lawlessness increased.

 

A survey in January 2013 reported that over fifty-five per cent of Yemenis felt the economy was deteriorating and around seventy per cent that job prospects were worsening; forty-two per cent thought corruption was increasing. Events came to a head in August 2014when the government raised fuel prices by more than even the IMF had demanded, increasing disillusionment and support for Houthis. In September that year Sana'a was taken over by forces loyal to the Houthi alliance with little resistance; and in February 2015 the Houthis dissolved parliament, replaced it with a presidential committee, and commenced moving on Aden under the guise of combating al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia and successfully lobbied for Gulf assistance to halt the Houthi advance, playing on Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran position. With the Iranian nuclear deal about to be concluded, and with Muhammad bin Salman appointed Saudi defence minister, the kingdom acted impulsively.

 

Current situation

 

Military

The current stage of the conflict was triggered in March 2015 when the Saudi coalition commenced airstrikes on forces in the Houthi alliance. Following the recapture of Aden by Hadi’s forces in September 2015, many, especially within the Saudi coalition, thought the civil war was reaching its end. However, the past year has illustrated that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force Houthi and Saleh forces from the north. Hadi’s forces have made gains in sum Northern provinces, recapturing most of oil rich Marib and Jawf, but this was largely due to the hundreds of Saudi coalition airstrikes, and most gains occurred December 2015 during a supposed ceasefire. Houthi forces have never felt welcome in southern provinces, but their entrenchment in the north, especially in Sa'dah and Sana’a, makes it unlikely that the population will revolt against it. Further, most of the forces loyal to Saleh are based in the north. The Saudi strikes also assisted in engendering closer ties between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, and they recently formed a combined Supreme Military Council to administer territory they control and to better coordinate their activities. With this scenario, it will be difficult for Hadi’s forces to take control of the north.

 

In the areas around Sana'a, both coalitions maintain control of strategic territory; the frontline has remained relatively constant since Hadi’s gains December 2015. Taiz too remains elusive; though controlled by Islah, the routes around it remain under Houthi control despite the Saudi bombardment. Even after the collapse of the ceasefire in August, there has been little territory changing hands.

 

The power vacuum and lack of governance resulting from the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, exacerbated by the civil war, has allowed the strengthening of AQAP, adding an additional dimension to the war. The group held the port city of Mukalla in oil-rich Hadramawt province for a year until UAE-backed southern forces forced it out in April 2016, allowing the USA to redeploy troops into Yemen. AQAP has consolidated control in other areas in Hadramawt, and in Shabwa and Abyan provinces in the east. It now controls around 900 square kilometres of territory, but has been the target of coalition airstrikes and US drone attacks in recent months, which in June 2015 had killed its then influential head Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Before this, it had largely been ignored by the Saudi coalition which perceived it as a lesser threat than the Houthis. Although AQAP has consolidated control over a number of areas in southern Yemen, it has not claimed responsibility for any major attack on western targets in the past year and a half, since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015. Its greater priority seems to be stemming the growth of the Islamic State Group (IS), which has struggled to gain a foothold in Yemen since the establishment of its Yemeni affiliate in 2014, and has been forced to resort to random bombings of Houthi and Hadi targets.

 

Political

The rise of IS and re-emergence of AQAP has caused global powers to regard Yemen with increased importance. They are especially wary since the Bab-el-Mandeb (Mandeb Strait) is traversed by vessels carrying much of the world’s trade. The UN has thus sought to mediate. After two rounds of failed talks in Switzerland in June and December 2015, the two big alliances finally held three months of talks in Kuwait from mid-April. These too failed, with disagreement on sequencing and representation. The three-point Kuwait plan, which was to commence with the formation of a supreme military council consisting of military personnel not involved in the war, followed by the disarmament and withdrawal of Houthi forces from towns, and culminate in the formation of a government of national unity and holding of elections, was opposed by the Houthis. They oppose the proposal to disarm before the formation of a government of national unity. Kerry’s latest initiative proposes that disarmament and the formation of a unity government should occur simultaneously, but Hadi is unlikely to accept this, and the Houthis will insist on real institutional influence before disarmament. The mediation scenario is further complicated by the presence of Saleh, whose re-emergence is unlikely to be tolerated by Gulf countries and Hadi’s fighters, and whose allied troops are unlikely to agree to disarm. UNSC resolution 2216, the basis of the negotiations, has complicated matters further as it heavily favours the Hadi coalition, and does not represent the balance of power on the ground. For example, it requires disarmament from Houthi forces (and not from Hadi’s), despite their holding territory inhabited by around sixty per cent of the population.

 

Consequences, humanitarian impacts

The sixteen-month conflict is having dire consequences for the Yemeni population. Over 10 000 people, mostly civilians, have already been killed, and much of the country’s infrastructure is in ruins. Over eighty per cent of civilians (20 million) do not have access to medical assistance and 15 million are deprived of adequate water. Seven million people are severely food insecure, and around a million children risk death and stunted development as a result of severe malnutrition if the conflict continues. Significantly, Yemen imports over ninety per cent of its food requirements, and the coalition’s naval blockade has rendered such importation impossible, despite the formation of an inspection and verification committee.

 

Africa

Just thirty-two kilometres off the coast of Djibouti, the Yemen conflict is also having a dire impact on Horn of Africa states. Before the Saudi intervention, Yemen hosted over 250 000 registered Somali refugees and a million Ethiopian migrants seeking work in the Gulf. The conflict has reversed these patterns and thousands returned to their home countries while others remain trapped in Yemen. This has placed enormous sudden pressure to provide food and other services on already struggling states such as Ethiopia and Somalia, and it is feared that groups such as al-Shabab may use these migration patterns to replenish their capacity. Yemeni trade with Africa has also come to a halt. Remittances sent by African refugees in Yemen are decreasing, placing even more stress on the economies of Horn of Africa states.

 

Over half of the Saudi coalition, however, is composed of African states. Egypt, Sudan, Senegal and Mauritania have contributed troops to the coalition, and Morocco and Somalia have provided logistical and aerial support. Essentially, this African support is because of financial enticements and solidarity with the Saudis.

 

Smaller wars

An inclusive solution, involving Yemeni actors, needs to be concluded as soon as possible in order to end the war and begin serious reconstruction of infrastructure and lives. The current perception, from the UN and policy makers, that the two blocs have clearly defined and unified agendas risks repeating the mistakes of the 2011 GCC initiative, which merely tried to include and incorporate Islah elements into the governing structure rather than assessing the differing interests of the many actors involved in the attempt to oust Saleh.Already some within the Hirak movement are calling for secession and Hadi, a southerner, has little to no influence over the situation on the ground. The Houthis are nominally open to a federal solution, while Islah and the GPC seek a unified Yemen. Tribes at the margins of the two alliances, such as those in Amran, Hadramawt and Mirab, have the potential to become spoilers if they feel excluded.

 

The larger conflict could be replaced by multiple smaller conflicts if inclusiveness, transparency and,most importantly, accountability are not enforced. Through the period of the war, small intra-northern and Southern tribal conflicts have re-emerged and been engendered. Further, unlike in the recent past, Hirak possesses arms and has sympathetic members governing southern provinces including Aden and Lahij. The Houthis too are unlikely to relinquish their weapons unless they are provided a real space in the country’s governance structures. Saleh’s supporters (especially from within the republican guard) would need to be incorporated into the newly emerging Yemeni military, but remain potential spoilers.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Allegedly, the current Saudi-led onslaught on Yemen has already caused destruction that resembles the destruction wrought in Syria over the last four years. However, the war in Yemen, like the Syrian crisis, cannot simply be viewed through a domestic Yemeni lens,  for Yemen has become a playground for various regional forces carving out their alliances and rivalries within the matrix of the greater Middle East cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These alliances, rivalries and the intentions of the various actors – including those who are geographically only peripherally attached to this regional system – must be understood within the framework of this confluence of multiple aims and objectives.
Two of those peripherally-attached countries are Turkey and Pakistan. While Turkey straddles the boundaries between the Middle East and Europe and Central Asia, and Pakistan occupies the area separating the Middle East from South Asia, both countries are often inextricably drawn into the conflictual Middle East regional system, usually despite their best efforts. The war in Yemen is illustrative of these dynamics. Pakistan’s response to the Saudi war on Yemen is a good recent case to explore these machinations.
Pakistani-Saudi relations
 
The history of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations is long, and has frequently been described by roleplayers in both countries as strong and dependable. The close collaboration between the two states in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan is often cited to substantiate this point. Additionally, the Pakistani ruling party and its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also enjoy exceptionally close ties with the Saudi royal family. When Sharif’s government was overthrown in 1999 by the then-military chief General Pervez Musharraf, Sharif chose Saudi Arabia for his exile, and has since benefited from Saudi largesse, both in his personal capacity and on behalf of Pakistan during his current tenure as prime minister. Examples range from 200 tonnes of dates gifted to Pakistan to a $1.5 billion loan to support the Pakistani economy – both in 2014.
The general Pakistani population also holds the kingdom in high regard, and a recent survey showed that ninety-five per cent of Pakistanis view Saudi Arabia favourably. The prestige that Saudi Arabia claims for itself as the caretaker of the two holiest Islamic sites no doubt plays a significant role in this sentiment.Military cooperation between the two countries is also decades old. Pakistani pilots flew Royal Saudi Air Force jets in 1969 to repel incursions from South Yemen; more than 15 000 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s; and Pakistani troops were deployed to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war in 1990. Pakistan also assisted Saudi Arabia in providing trainers and anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry to Saudi-backed rebels in Syria. And there is much speculation that Pakistan, the only Muslim state with a nuclear arsenal, could include Saudi Arabia under its nuclear umbrella in the event of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons power, or that it might transfer nuclear weaponry or weapons technology to Riyadh.
It was therefore not far-fetched to assume that Pakistan would support Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Expectations for such support were bolstered by Saudi and other Gulf officials, and by a visit of the Pakistani defence minister, Khawaj Asif, to Riyadhas the Sharif government mulled over the level of support it could offer to the Saudis in Yemen. Arab media, especially the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel, were reporting that Pakistan would despatch jet fighters and warships to take part in the Yemeni campaign, Operation Decisive Storm. However, after various high level delegations from Pakistan, including military officials, cabinet members and the Pakistani prime minister had visited and assured the Saudis of Pakistani support, Sharif put the matter to the Pakistani parliament for a decision. In aunanimous decision, the parliament decided to turn down the Saudi request for assistance in Yemen, fearing that it could spark Shi'a-Sunni sectarian violence inside Pakistan. Parliament was also concerned about stretching the army too thinl by engaging in a foreign war while Pakistan itself faced multiple internal insurgencies.
Saudi and Gulf anger
 
That the Saudis were upset by Pakistan’s stance was obvious to most observers of the two countries, despite Saudi attempts at suggesting that they regarded the Pakistani decision as anissue internal to Pakistan. In contrast, the sharp outburst by the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, calling Pakistan’s decision to withhold troops ‘contradictory, dangerous and unexpected’ indicated that senior decision-makers within the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, were bitterly disappointed by Pakistan. Thereafter, diplomatic initiatives between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia over the former’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen came to a standstill, despite a meeting between Pakistani president Mamnoon Hussain and the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The meeting was, at best, symbolic rather than a real effort to evaluate and reinvigorate bilateral relations.
It remains unclear whether Pakistan’s decision on Yemen indicates the country inclining toward Iran as the latter furthers its reconciliation with western countries, and whether a new Pakistani-Iranian relationship will be at the expense of the South Asian state’s previous cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is possible that the decision was simply a demonstration of Pakistan’s desire to chart an independent foreign policy formed solely in its national interests – particularly its concern to contain sectarian tensions internally, as parliamentarians suggested during their five-day deliberations on Yemen. Certain Pakistani commentatorswould certainly prefer their country to act simply on the basis of its own interests, and not to become embroiled in battles between other Muslim states.
Iran replacing Saudi Arabia?
 
Caution must be exercised with respect to the question about Pakistan’s allegiances. From the perspectives of the two antagonists – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the battle over Pakistan is most likely azero-sum game, with Pakistan being forced to choose one over the other. After all, Iran freed from sanctions would be able to provide similar kinds of support to Pakistan as Saudi Arabia, especially in terms of oil concessions and economic aid. With Iran expected to receive around $100 billion just from funds held in escrow from past oil sales, it is likely to be able provide cheap oil and aid to Pakistan.
The Pakistan foreign ministry welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal, expressing its desire to expand trade between the two countries, and to continue with the Iran-Pakistan pipelineproject, which will likely run from Asalouyeh in the Iranian Southern Pars gas field, through the Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, to Karachi and Multan. Multan might also become the site from where the pipeline will extend towards Delhi in India. The pipeline project will go a long way in helping Pakistan solve its energy needs, and will also build on Pakistani collaboration with China, which seems willing to step in and bolster Pakistan in the event of a Gulf or Saudi withdrawal. China is busy constructing the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will link southwestern Pakistan to northwestern China, playing a crucial role in regional integration of China, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Mushahid Hussain, a senior Pakistani political figure and chair of the Pakistan-China Institutedescribed the project as an integration of South Asia and East Asia into a ‘Greater South Asia’. He provides a window into how the Pakistani foreign policy establishment might be calculating a decreasing dependency on Gulf and Arab partners.
Another, more important, factor that might push Pakistan closer to Iran is security. Pakistan shares a 904 kilometre-long border with Iran which has seen them cooperate in addressing the Balochi insurgency affecting both countries for decades. Further, because of Iran’s influence in Afghanistan and among politicised Shi'a groups in Pakistan, it represents a force that Pakistan would not want to convert into an enemy. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. While it does have influence over certain Sunni militant groups in Pakistan, most of them depend on logistical support from within the Pakistani security establishment. In other words, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the former is more capable of negatively affecting Pakistan’s security. Iran has a ready network of suppliers to funnel weapons into Pakistan through Balochistan, a route that is not available to Saudi Arabia.
It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that Pakistan might begin inclining more towards Iran than in the past. Saudi Arabia could play the card of drying up Pakistan’s foreign remittances – as it has done with Yemenis and Somalis previously – by forcefully repatriating Pakistani workers in the kingdom. Their wages remitted to Pakistan represent nearly one-third of its total remittances. Together with remittances from Pakistanis in the UAE, the combined amount accounts for half of the country’s annual total of $18.4 billion in remittances. But it is doubtful whether Saudi Arabia would be ready for such a shock to its economy; Pakistanis represent the second largest group of foreign workers employed in the kingdom after India.
Another indicator that might give a better sense of how Pakistan is juggling its relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia is the level of diplomatic activity with Iran. While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had no high profile exchanges – except for the meeting between Salman and Sharif – since the Pakistani decision to remain neutral on Yemen, the Iranian foreign minister, Javed Zarif, visited Pakistan in April as well as early August; the April visit was while the Pakistani parliament was deliberating on whether to support the Saudi campaign in Yemen. And, earlier this week, on 25 August, a technical delegation from Iran’s commerce ministry landed in Pakistan to explore the possibility of increasing the bilateral trade between the two countries to $5 billion.
Conclusion
 
Pakistan’s decision to stay out of the Yemen conflict is not simply based on concerns that Shi'a-Sunni sectarian tensions might increase within its populace, or that it could not afford to distract its security apparatus away from the various insurgencies within its borders. Rather, it represents a larger regional shift that will likely see Pakistan pivot away from Saudi Arabia into Iran’s embrace, a move that will also be supported by China. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies must be sensing this shift. What steps Saudi Arabia will take to counter this possibility in Pakistan and other countries as Iran grows in confidence remains to be seen. Within the Middle East regional system, the Saudis have played on the hackneyed fault lines of Arab-vs-Persian and Sunni-vs-Shi'a in order to rope in countries such as Jordan and Egypt, as witnessed in the Yemen campaign. Is this a viable option, however? Instead of visiting destruction upon a country, as in Yemen, in order to gain the upper hand in its cold war with Iran, Saudi Arabia might be better off engaging Iran directly. Pakistan seems to be choosing a less hostile course – even if it is not a preferred method of Saudis policymakers. If other countries in the region, especially Turkey, follow the same course, Saudi Arabia might quickly find itself running out of options in its bid for regional hegemony over and against Iran.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Allegedly, the current Saudi-led onslaught on Yemen has already caused destruction that resembles the destruction wrought in Syria over the last four years. However, the war in Yemen, like the Syrian crisis, cannot simply be viewed through a domestic Yemeni lens,  for Yemen has become a playground for various regional forces carving out their alliances and rivalries within the matrix of the greater Middle East cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These alliances, rivalries and the intentions of the various actors – including those who are geographically only peripherally attached to this regional system – must be understood within the framework of this confluence of multiple aims and objectives.
Two of those peripherally-attached countries are Turkey and Pakistan. While Turkey straddles the boundaries between the Middle East and Europe and Central Asia, and Pakistan occupies the area separating the Middle East from South Asia, both countries are often inextricably drawn into the conflictual Middle East regional system, usually despite their best efforts. The war in Yemen is illustrative of these dynamics. Pakistan’s response to the Saudi war on Yemen is a good recent case to explore these machinations.
Pakistani-Saudi relations
 
The history of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations is long, and has frequently been described by roleplayers in both countries as strong and dependable. The close collaboration between the two states in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan is often cited to substantiate this point. Additionally, the Pakistani ruling party and its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also enjoy exceptionally close ties with the Saudi royal family. When Sharif’s government was overthrown in 1999 by the then-military chief General Pervez Musharraf, Sharif chose Saudi Arabia for his exile, and has since benefited from Saudi largesse, both in his personal capacity and on behalf of Pakistan during his current tenure as prime minister. Examples range from 200 tonnes of dates gifted to Pakistan to a $1.5 billion loan to support the Pakistani economy – both in 2014.
The general Pakistani population also holds the kingdom in high regard, and a recent survey showed that ninety-five per cent of Pakistanis view Saudi Arabia favourably. The prestige that Saudi Arabia claims for itself as the caretaker of the two holiest Islamic sites no doubt plays a significant role in this sentiment.Military cooperation between the two countries is also decades old. Pakistani pilots flew Royal Saudi Air Force jets in 1969 to repel incursions from South Yemen; more than 15 000 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s; and Pakistani troops were deployed to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war in 1990. Pakistan also assisted Saudi Arabia in providing trainers and anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry to Saudi-backed rebels in Syria. And there is much speculation that Pakistan, the only Muslim state with a nuclear arsenal, could include Saudi Arabia under its nuclear umbrella in the event of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons power, or that it might transfer nuclear weaponry or weapons technology to Riyadh.
It was therefore not far-fetched to assume that Pakistan would support Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Expectations for such support were bolstered by Saudi and other Gulf officials, and by a visit of the Pakistani defence minister, Khawaj Asif, to Riyadhas the Sharif government mulled over the level of support it could offer to the Saudis in Yemen. Arab media, especially the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel, were reporting that Pakistan would despatch jet fighters and warships to take part in the Yemeni campaign, Operation Decisive Storm. However, after various high level delegations from Pakistan, including military officials, cabinet members and the Pakistani prime minister had visited and assured the Saudis of Pakistani support, Sharif put the matter to the Pakistani parliament for a decision. In aunanimous decision, the parliament decided to turn down the Saudi request for assistance in Yemen, fearing that it could spark Shi'a-Sunni sectarian violence inside Pakistan. Parliament was also concerned about stretching the army too thinl by engaging in a foreign war while Pakistan itself faced multiple internal insurgencies.
Saudi and Gulf anger
 
That the Saudis were upset by Pakistan’s stance was obvious to most observers of the two countries, despite Saudi attempts at suggesting that they regarded the Pakistani decision as anissue internal to Pakistan. In contrast, the sharp outburst by the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, calling Pakistan’s decision to withhold troops ‘contradictory, dangerous and unexpected’ indicated that senior decision-makers within the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, were bitterly disappointed by Pakistan. Thereafter, diplomatic initiatives between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia over the former’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen came to a standstill, despite a meeting between Pakistani president Mamnoon Hussain and the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The meeting was, at best, symbolic rather than a real effort to evaluate and reinvigorate bilateral relations.
It remains unclear whether Pakistan’s decision on Yemen indicates the country inclining toward Iran as the latter furthers its reconciliation with western countries, and whether a new Pakistani-Iranian relationship will be at the expense of the South Asian state’s previous cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is possible that the decision was simply a demonstration of Pakistan’s desire to chart an independent foreign policy formed solely in its national interests – particularly its concern to contain sectarian tensions internally, as parliamentarians suggested during their five-day deliberations on Yemen. Certain Pakistani commentatorswould certainly prefer their country to act simply on the basis of its own interests, and not to become embroiled in battles between other Muslim states.
Iran replacing Saudi Arabia?
 
Caution must be exercised with respect to the question about Pakistan’s allegiances. From the perspectives of the two antagonists – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the battle over Pakistan is most likely azero-sum game, with Pakistan being forced to choose one over the other. After all, Iran freed from sanctions would be able to provide similar kinds of support to Pakistan as Saudi Arabia, especially in terms of oil concessions and economic aid. With Iran expected to receive around $100 billion just from funds held in escrow from past oil sales, it is likely to be able provide cheap oil and aid to Pakistan.
The Pakistan foreign ministry welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal, expressing its desire to expand trade between the two countries, and to continue with the Iran-Pakistan pipelineproject, which will likely run from Asalouyeh in the Iranian Southern Pars gas field, through the Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, to Karachi and Multan. Multan might also become the site from where the pipeline will extend towards Delhi in India. The pipeline project will go a long way in helping Pakistan solve its energy needs, and will also build on Pakistani collaboration with China, which seems willing to step in and bolster Pakistan in the event of a Gulf or Saudi withdrawal. China is busy constructing the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will link southwestern Pakistan to northwestern China, playing a crucial role in regional integration of China, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Mushahid Hussain, a senior Pakistani political figure and chair of the Pakistan-China Institutedescribed the project as an integration of South Asia and East Asia into a ‘Greater South Asia’. He provides a window into how the Pakistani foreign policy establishment might be calculating a decreasing dependency on Gulf and Arab partners.
Another, more important, factor that might push Pakistan closer to Iran is security. Pakistan shares a 904 kilometre-long border with Iran which has seen them cooperate in addressing the Balochi insurgency affecting both countries for decades. Further, because of Iran’s influence in Afghanistan and among politicised Shi'a groups in Pakistan, it represents a force that Pakistan would not want to convert into an enemy. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. While it does have influence over certain Sunni militant groups in Pakistan, most of them depend on logistical support from within the Pakistani security establishment. In other words, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the former is more capable of negatively affecting Pakistan’s security. Iran has a ready network of suppliers to funnel weapons into Pakistan through Balochistan, a route that is not available to Saudi Arabia.
It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that Pakistan might begin inclining more towards Iran than in the past. Saudi Arabia could play the card of drying up Pakistan’s foreign remittances – as it has done with Yemenis and Somalis previously – by forcefully repatriating Pakistani workers in the kingdom. Their wages remitted to Pakistan represent nearly one-third of its total remittances. Together with remittances from Pakistanis in the UAE, the combined amount accounts for half of the country’s annual total of $18.4 billion in remittances. But it is doubtful whether Saudi Arabia would be ready for such a shock to its economy; Pakistanis represent the second largest group of foreign workers employed in the kingdom after India.
Another indicator that might give a better sense of how Pakistan is juggling its relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia is the level of diplomatic activity with Iran. While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had no high profile exchanges – except for the meeting between Salman and Sharif – since the Pakistani decision to remain neutral on Yemen, the Iranian foreign minister, Javed Zarif, visited Pakistan in April as well as early August; the April visit was while the Pakistani parliament was deliberating on whether to support the Saudi campaign in Yemen. And, earlier this week, on 25 August, a technical delegation from Iran’s commerce ministry landed in Pakistan to explore the possibility of increasing the bilateral trade between the two countries to $5 billion.
Conclusion
 
Pakistan’s decision to stay out of the Yemen conflict is not simply based on concerns that Shi'a-Sunni sectarian tensions might increase within its populace, or that it could not afford to distract its security apparatus away from the various insurgencies within its borders. Rather, it represents a larger regional shift that will likely see Pakistan pivot away from Saudi Arabia into Iran’s embrace, a move that will also be supported by China. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies must be sensing this shift. What steps Saudi Arabia will take to counter this possibility in Pakistan and other countries as Iran grows in confidence remains to be seen. Within the Middle East regional system, the Saudis have played on the hackneyed fault lines of Arab-vs-Persian and Sunni-vs-Shi'a in order to rope in countries such as Jordan and Egypt, as witnessed in the Yemen campaign. Is this a viable option, however? Instead of visiting destruction upon a country, as in Yemen, in order to gain the upper hand in its cold war with Iran, Saudi Arabia might be better off engaging Iran directly. Pakistan seems to be choosing a less hostile course – even if it is not a preferred method of Saudis policymakers. If other countries in the region, especially Turkey, follow the same course, Saudi Arabia might quickly find itself running out of options in its bid for regional hegemony over and against Iran.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The striking advances of Houthis in Yemen, having already taken de facto control of the capital Sana'a last month, has implications for Yemen as well as for the greater Middle East. Within Yemen, they signal the return to political prominence of the Zaidi-Shia, who had been marginalised since 1962, and a divergence from the federalist future that was being contemplated for the country by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Regionally, in addition to becoming part of the cold war confrontation between two hegemons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Houthi gains also affect the manner in which al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) positions itself against its various enemies.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The uprising in Yemen that started in January 2011 was largely inspired by the popular protests that swept the region - in particular the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings that respectively saw the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Despite certain socio-economic and political causal similarities to other uprisings in the region, the Yemeni protests reflect the contextual particularities of Yemen. As such, any reading of the uprising needs to be located and understood from within the complexities of that country's political and cultural milieu.

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