By Irfan Husain
April 11th, 2015
HERE’S an odd thing: Saudi Arabia, a state with a defence budget of some $80 billion, is asking Pakistan, which spends around $7bn, for help.
The answer to this riddle lies in the kingdom’s well-known aversion to putting its soldiers in harm’s way. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the Saudis felt the heat, their first instinct was to beg the Americans to help.
Now, the Americans, chastened by their experience in Iraq, no longer wish to get sucked into another quagmire in the Middle East. So Pakistan is being pressed to send its troops to do the fighting for the House of Saud.
For a change, there are cautious words, even words of wisdom.
For years now, the Saudis have been spending billions to acquire state-of-the-art weapons systems from the United States, Britain and France. These shiny toys sit in the desert, gathering rust, until they have to be replaced by yet more brand new jets and tanks. “Ka-ching!” go the bank accounts of the princes who rake in the commissions.
A second odd thing: a recent edict prohibits Saudi men from marrying Pakistani women in the kingdom. Granted, this is probably no bad thing, but it does demonstrate what Saudis think of us. In fact, they make no secret of their racism while dealing with workers from Pakistan as well as from the rest of South Asia. The terrible conditions in which ‘guest’ workers are forced to live in Saudi Arabia as well as in other Gulf countries have often been highlighted in the international media.
Over the years, Saudis have benefited hugely from their immense oil reserves, and this accident of geology has permitted them to buy American protection. But the discovery of shale oil and gas in America as well as the possibility of a US-Iran rapprochement have forced the Saudis to reassess their security options.
Thus far, the Saudi army has only been used to put down dissent within the kingdom, and not for any serious fighting outside its borders. And, when decades ago, it did intervene in Yemen, the outcome did not cover it with glory.
After a fortnight of futile air attacks in Yemen, all the Saudi air force has managed to do is to kill hundreds of civilians, and destroy several schools and a dairy plant. The Houthi advance has proceeded without let or hindrance, and Hadi, the Saudi proxy, is still awaiting his restoration.
Here, we come to the third odd thing: after over two weeks of foreign countries attacking a member state, the United Nations has not uttered a squeak. Even if Yemen is engaged in a fratricidal civil war, this does not give others the right to bomb it indiscriminately. So whatever happened to international law?
The biggest winner in this conflict is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, long considered the deadliest affiliate of the Al Qaeda franchise. AQAP has looted government arsenals of millions of dollars worth of American arms, and has expanded the territory under its control. Groups such as AQAP thrive in chaotic conditions, and its members are probably cheering Saudi jets as they fly overhead.
Looking at the Pakistani reaction to the Saudi request for urgent help, we come to the fourth odd thing: the solid consensus against jumping into the Yemeni cauldron. We Pakistanis are a fractious bunch and seldom agree about anything. Normally, a request from Saudi Arabia would have politicians queuing up to say: “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, sir.”
But for a change, there are cautious words, even words of wisdom. Across the political and the media spectra, leaders, editorial writers and talking heads all counsel diplomacy. So what’s going on? In my experience, the only time everybody’s on the same page about anything is when the puppet masters at GHQ are pulling the strings.
Also, Nawaz Sharif’s favourite political ploy is to kick the ball into the tall grass. He did this over the unending business of ‘talks with the Taliban’ by calling an all-party conference and then a parliamentary debate. The idea is to delay a decision until it’s forced on him. He can then dilute his own responsibility.
In this case, Gen Raheel Sharif has probably told him the army has its hands full with anti-insurgency operations in the tribal areas, as well as on our eastern border, and can’t spare the division the Saudis have asked for. The prime minister, to get off the hook with the Saudis, used the joint session of parliament to say to his patrons that his hands are tied.
According to one argument, we ought to bail out the Saudis because of the monetary assistance they have given us over the years. But the Americans have given us far more, and yet we refused to join the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003. At the end of the day, ours is not a mercenary army.