During the first Gulf War in 1991, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, dispatched Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia, where they became a part of the U.S.-led coalition confronting Saddam Hussein. At the time, the decision was unpopular at home, with criticism coming not just from the political opposition but also the then sitting army chief.
Sharif is prime minister again and faces a similar dilemma: whether to accede to a Saudi request for Pakistani combat troops, fighter jets and warships to join its 10-nation coalition assembled to stop the Houthi revolt in Yemen and thwart the ambitions of their alleged backers in Iran. This time, Sharif is confronted with almost as much hostility as he was a quarter century ago. The target isn’t the U.S., but the opaque and one-sided nature of Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Since Monday, Pakistan’s parliament has been raucously debating the Saudi request, with a usually fractious opposition uniting against a Pakistani intervention. Several speakers said they consider Saudi Arabia a “brotherly” country but bridled at the suggestion that Pakistan should be dragged into a possibly ruinous foreign war that could worsen relations with Iran and risk further inflaming sectarian tensions at home. Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, a member of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, was angry at the suggestions that the Pakistan army were mere mercenaries. “My army is not a rent-an-army,” Bilour said.
Sharif is also on the defensive after a flurry of reports from Saudi news sources claiming Pakistan had already agreed to be part of the coalition. The reports, which Islamabad has not explicitly denied, sparked concerns that Sharif’s government had made a commitment to the Saudis without informing the Pakistani public.
“We demand Nawaz Sharif tell us the truth,” Imran Khan, the former cricket legend turn opposition leader, told reporters outside parliament this week. “I don’t know what agreement Nawaz Sharif has done in Saudi Arabia. But I do know that the Pakistani people’s needs are more deserving than Saudi Arabia’s territorial boundary.”
Undeniably, Sharif is close to the Saudis. After he was ousted in a military coup in 1999, he found a home in exile in the desert kingdom. Sharif became the first non-Saudi to receive a special economic development loan from the Saudi government to develop a business there. His son is still the owner of a thriving steel mill in Jeddah. Last year, the Saudis provided a $1.5 billion grant to Pakistan’s ailing economy at Sharif’s request.
That long history raises suspicions Sharif is vulnerable to pressure from Riyadh. “The prime minister has shown that he understands the pitfalls of Pakistani troops being involved in a distant conflict,” Mushahid Hussain, the chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Defense Committee, told Al Jazeera. “At the same time, there are commitments and obligations to [the Saudis] who have been with us in moments of crisis or difficulty.”
Pakistan first stationed troops in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. That commitment has been dramatically scaled down to just a few hundred troops, but Pakistani opposition politicians are concerned about further taxing Pakistan’s already strained military. “Forty percent of the army is engaged in the war on terror,” said Hussain.
Since returning to the prime minister’s office nearly two years ago, Sharif has withstood a bruising standoff with the army, months of anti-government street protests and the worst attack on civilians in Pakistan’s history at a Peshawar school last December. These events have already drained much of his authority, and a messy foreign war is likely to do further damage.
Getting involved could also be divisive domestically. The crisis in Yemen isn’t explicitly sectarian, but there are fears that it could lead to a full-blown regional proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Pakistan’s current trouble with anti-Shia violence stems from an earlier Saudi-Iranian proxy war on its soil in the 1980s.
An estimated one-fifth of Pakistan’s population is Shia, making it the largest home to Shias outside Iran. Last Friday, anti-Shia armed groups in Pakistan — including those behind a wave of horrific anti-Shia violence in recent years — took to the streets to rouse support for the Saudis and chant slogans against Iranian influence, just as they did at the start of the Syrian crisis.
Sharif hopes to defuse any hint of sectarianism that could stand in the way of better relations with Tehran, which has traditionally been closer to rivals India and Afghanistan. Under the sanctions regime, plans for a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan were shelved. Now there is hope that those plans can be revived to ease Pakistan’s chronic shortage of winter gas. Iran is also crucial to any postwar settlement in Afghanistan.
During the debate in parliament, Sharif took the unusual step of inviting the Iranians to be part of a diplomatic solution, possibly brokered by Islamabad and Ankara. Pakistan hopes that, as the only other non-Arab country lending Saudi Arabia support against the Houthis, they can calm regional fears.
The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, is visiting Islamabad on Wednesday. His trip comes on the heels of high-profile visits from the Egyptian and Bahraini defense ministers, both members of the Saudi coalition in Yemen. The Pakistanis have also been racking up air miles with a ministerial delegation visiting Riyadh and Ankara.
For the Saudis, Pakistani support is important for two reasons. If they wish to reclaim territory lost to the Houthis inside Yemen, they may need to turn to the Pakistanis or the Egyptians for ground troops. Pakistan also offers symbolic importance, as a nuclear power that borders Iran, and as proof that Saudi Arabia can rally a coalition that reaches out beyond the Arab world to Iran’s eastern and northern borders.
There is room for a compromise: Pakistan could agree to extend the Saudis its official support, but withhold troops and materiel, and instead pledge to defend Saudi territory in a manner that is unlikely to be tested. But to reach that middle ground, Sharif will have to navigate between Saudi pressure and Pakistani fear.