Pakistan has virtually declined Saudi Arabia's request to join the Arab coalition fighting its current military operation in to restore the deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After days of discussion in media and parliament, a joint session of parliament passed a resolution on Friday (April 10) saying that Pakistan "should maintain neutrality in the conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis".
The joint session was summoned after the Saudi government approached Islamabad for Pakistani warplanes, warships and soldiers to assist in the conflict and join the Saudi-led military coalition that began conducting air strikes last month against Houthi forces in Yemen. According to media reports the Saudis wanted a 3-4 year deployment of a full corps of the Army under their command.
The resolution further said that the crisis in Yemen could "plunge the region into turmoil", calling upon the warring factions in Yemen to resolve their differences "peacefully and through dialogue". The resolution noted that while the war in Yemen was not sectarian in nature, it had the potential of turning into a sectarian conflict and thereby having a critical fallout in the region, including within Pakistan.
It urged the government to initiate steps to move the UN Security Council and the Organization of Islamic Conference to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.
Brig. Gen. Ahmad Al-Assiri, consultant in the office of the Saudi defense minister told newsmen at his daily press conference Friday that the Pakistani government had not yet announced its official position. However, he added "Pakistan's participation is in the interest of the Yemeni people and the operation but there are other forces already with the coalition that are well trained for the terrain." Tellingly, hours after the Pakistanis parliament's resolution, Saudi Arabia refused permission to a Pakistani aircraft on the plea that the Shaheen Air plane did not have an entry permit to the Kingdom's airspace.
On the other hand, the reaction of the United Arab Emirate was very sharp. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash Garhash warned Pakistan of having to pay a "heavy price" for an "ambiguous stand." He told Khaleej Times: "The vague and contradictory stands of Pakistan and Turkey are an absolute proof that Arab security -- from Libya to Yemen -- is the responsibility of none but Arab countries." He added that Pakistan should take a clear position "in favor of its strategic relations with the six-nation Arab Gulf cooperation Council".
Islamabad finds itself in an awkward position on Yemen, reluctant to offend oil-rich Saudi Arabia with which it has long enjoyed close military and economic ties but also not wanting to get involved in a war that could fan sectarian tensions at home. At the same time, Pakistan needs to build better ties with its immediate neighbour Iran that offers huge prospects of trade and energy imports once sanctions are lifted against Tehran.
The Shia Factor: Perhaps an important factor for Pakistan to decline to join the anti-Yemen coalition is the Shia factor. Saudi Arabia had reportedly asked Pakistan to send only Sunni soldiers and not Shia solders. Pakistan's army is comprised of roughly 70% Sunni soldiers and 30% Shia soldiers. The Saudi request was considered as creating a rift in the Pakistan army ranks which doesn't have any sectarian division.
Meanwhile, Supreme Court of Pakistan was urged to take suo moto action to restrain the Government against becoming an ally of Saudi Arabia led military coalition. It was argued that the Saudi-Yemeni conflict has serious sectarian connotations. Pakistan is already suffering from this curse. Shia and other minorities in Pakistan are being regularly targeted and killed. Its participation in the Saudi-Yemen war will not only exacerbate the domestic conflict but also draw an inviolable wedge between Pakistan and its neighbor Iran.
It may be recalled that during 1970s a large contingent of Pakistan army was stationed in Saudi Arabia. After the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia reportedly asked Pakistan to send only Sunni soldiers and not Shia one. The Government of General Ziaul Haq withdrew the Pakistani troops on the plea that the Saudi request would create division since there was no division of Shia and Sunni in the army. The latest Saudi was now politely declined by Islamabad on the same plea.
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Pakistan parliament stance to be neutral on the Yemeni conflict came after weeks of media campaign to highlight the risk for Pakistan to join the Saudi-led coalition. It was suggested that this is not a war for the integrity of Saudi Arabia, but an expansionist power grab by them to re-instate their chosen leader.
The Pakistan parliament resolution came days after the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's visit to Islamabad.