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.
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 Institute, described 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.
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.