Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

Why Pakistan may be a reluctant ally in Saudis' Yemen campaign

Analysis: Domestic and regional political concerns raise the risks of being seen to ally on sectarian lines against Iran

Saudi Arabia’s new policy of uniting Sunni Muslim powers against Iran’s Shia regime has resulted in an impressively broad coalition joining its military campaign against Yemen’s pro-Tehran Houthi rebels.

Along with five Gulf countries, and the poorer monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, it also enlisted the support of its Egyptian strongman ally, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Even plucky Sudan has dispatched three fighter jets.

Differences over issues such as the Muslim Brotherhood were suppressed in the interests of building a broad anti-Iran coalition that extended beyond the Arab world. Turkey announced on Thursday that it supports the Saudi-led offensive, with President Recep Tayyep Erdogan issuing a spirited harangue that branded Iran’s actions a source of “annoyance.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise has been the reported inclusion of Pakistan. Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned broadcaster, said Islamabad was providing military support. The habitually evasive Pakistani Foreign Office said simply that they were mulling a Saudi request for troops, while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed Thursday to retaliate against any threat to Saudi Arabia’s "integrity."

A senior member of Sharif’s cabinet told Al Jazeera that Pakistan will not be involved in any action “in Yemen” itself but will provide support to the Saudis on their own soil “if they are threatened.” On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported Pakistani and Saudi forces were carrying out a joint exercise near the Yemeni border, and quoted a U.S. official as saying the move was designed to serve as a warning to the Houthi rebels.

Unlike the Turks, who are incensed by Tehran’s involvement in propping up the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Pakistan has no active dispute with Iran. The Saudis and Turks have made common cause in Syria and now Yemen despite backing rival factions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Pakistan, by contrast, has remained distant from the Syrian conflict, facing a compelling threat at home. Since the December massacre of Peshawar schoolchildren, it has renewed its resolve to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban — a notoriously sectarian organization that has terrorized Pakistan’s Shia population, the largest outside Iran. Around one in five Pakistanis is Shia, as was the country’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Still, it now finds itself drawn into a geopolitical alliance with a strongly sectarian pallor.

This isn’t first time Pakistan has been dragged into the poisonous Saudi-Iranian rivalry. After the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power, Pakistan became a battlefield in a proxy war between the two countries. The Iranians established armed Shia groups in Pakistan; the Saudis countered by sponsoring anti-Shia groups — a tradition that continues to this day, with millions of dollars funneled from the desert kingdom into thousands of Pakistani madrassas teaching extreme ideas.

For the Saudis, the appeal of Pakistan is obvious. It shares a border with Iran and, crucially, already has nuclear weapons. The Saudis want Pakistan to act as a counterweight to Iran, and have long cultivated a close relationship with its military. Since the late 1960s, Pakistani soldiers have been permanently garrisoned in Saudi Arabia. In 1969, Pakistani pilots slipped into Saudi jets to carry out sorties in South Yemen against a rebel threat at the time.

For Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is not only a long-standing source of aid but a principal source of foreign exchange through much-needed remittances. Just last month, for example, $453 million flowed into Pakistan from the exertions of more than 1.5 million often poorly treated migrant workers. The intimacy of the two countries’ ruling elites notwithstanding, the migrant workers are weighed down by debts they owe to exploitative recruiters. Pakistanis are also disproportionately found in Saudi Arabia’s jails and on death row.

The relationship, however, is one-sided. “We in Saudi Arabia are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants,” Saudi Arabia’s current ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, boasted in 2007, according to a leaked State Department cable. Its clout extends to the realm of politics, where the Saudis have keenly backed military rulers and right-wing politicians — Prime Minister Sharif lived in exile in Jeddah after the Kingdom persuaded then dictator Pervez Musharraf to release him from prison.

As Prince Waleed ibn Talal once told to the Wall Street Journal, “Nawaz Sharif, specifically, is very much Saudi Arabia’s man in Pakistan.” The Saudis last year injected $1.5 billion into Pakistan’s treasury, boosting its liquidity at moment when it is still strapped to an exacting IMF loan package.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party is seen within Pakistan to favor Sunnis, and as having ties with sectarian groups. It has few Shia parliamentarians and few Shia voters.

Pakistan’s army, however, has never had a sectarian reputation. It has included many Shia generals, although their numbers have thinned over the years. Some of the worst victims of the Pakistani Taliban’s savagery were Shia soldiers, who were murdered in captivity. Becoming an overtly Sunni army would compromise the Pakistan military’s proud claim of being a force of cohesion for the country, and risk alienating many Shia Pakistanis, at a time when there is a clamor for unity against the Taliban at home.

This may also be a bad time for Pakistan to pick a fight with Iran. In recent years, relations between the neighbors have veered between periods of economic cooperation and cross-border tensions, particularly over Sunni armed groups targeting the Iranian regime from Pakistani territory in Balochistan.

But as it battles the Pakistani Taliban along the Afghan border, Islamabad is trying to facilitate a postwar settlement across the border by bringing to bear its considerable influence over the Afghan Taliban. Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, has developed closer relations with the Pakistani leadership than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had ever managed to achieve. But any eventual settlement in Afghanistan will inevitably involve Iran, whose influence in the country was such that even the U.S. sought Tehran’s cooperation during and after its 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban.

Being drawn into the Middle East’s sectarian battles, then, carries greater domestic and regional risk for Pakistan than it does for most of the Saudis’ other partners.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter