By Najam Sethi
17 Apr 2015
After much hand wringing and soul searching, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to abandon “neutrality” in the civil war in Yemen as originally resolved by a consensus in Parliament. The PM’s new formulation clearly says that the government of Manzur Hadi in Yemen was legitimate and the Houthis’ attempt to seize power is illegitimate.
This brings Pakistan one step nearer to sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty” in the event of any Houthi incursions across the Yemeni border. Indeed, the PM’s reference to the defense of Saudi Arabia, “despite the ongoing commitment of our armed forces to Zarb-e-Azb”, is a direct allusion to the probability of sending troops to Saudi Arabia at some stage.
Accordingly, a delegation led by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz has landed in Riyadh to reassure the Saudi leaders that Pakistan is not a fair weather friend and will stand by KSA in its hour of need. Doubtless, they will also explain some political obstacles in the way of immediately dispatching troops – public opinion is vehemently against shedding any Pakistani blood in Yemen on behalf of the Saudis because no one believes this is a Shia-Sunni conflict or that KSA is seriously threatened, and everyone believes that the negative blow-back from previous Pakistani adventures in Afghanistan has laid Pakistan so low that another such intervention would plunge the country into fratricidal sectarian strife. Also, the fact that GHQ hasn’t been tripping over itself to dispatch troops, despite the obvious lucre attached to this demand, suggests that it has its hands full dealing with the current anti-Taliban operation and the perennial Indian threat.
In effect, Mr Sharif is buying time to cobble a group comprising Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar and Iran to negotiate a ceasefire in Yemen even as he is making all the right sounding moves and noises to appease the Saudis and Gulf Sheikhs. This strategy is in line with the latest UN Security Council resolutions pushed by the Saudis to apply sanctions on the Houthi leaders and their allies, as a prelude to negotiations over a power sharing formula (as in 2012) to end the conflict. Iran has also floated a four-point plan starting with a ceasefire and ending with a power-sharing agreement between northern and southern contenders.
This is a tricky situation for Pakistan. Mr Sharif cannot afford to be either too emotional or overly cold blooded. The first would imply siding unthinkingly with public opinion and telling the Saudis to go fly a kite because of their racist arrogance. The second would start counting oil and dollars and rush troops to defend bonanza-lands in the Gulf and ME. Certainly, a prime minister who has barely survived a grand conspiracy to unseat his government should not be doing anything to precipitate a new political and economic crisis that would most definitely follow a backlash from the Saudis and Gulfdoms if their desperate cries for help are blithely ignored. Over 3 million Pakistanis work in these countries and remit over $11 billion a year to sustain nearly 30 million Pakistanis across the country. If these workers and their hard earned monies were to be sanctioned by their hosts, angry Pakistanis would spill over into the streets against both the Arabs and their Pakistani ruling class brothers. The economy would face a balance of payments crisis and the rupee would slide in parallel with forex reserves. Inflation would rise, hardship would follow and there would be fresh calls and agitation from the political parties for the ouster of the Sharif regime. Indeed, the very political parties that are insisting that Mr Sharif should refuse troops to the Saudis and maintain “neutrality” would be the first ones to demand his resignation when such a policy leads to an angry and hurtful response from the Saudis and Gulf Sheikhs.
When formulating policy, Mr Sharif should also be mindful of the internal politics behind Saudi Arabia’s aggressive external posture. This has to do with two factors. First, the historical Faustian bargain between the rigid and ultra-conservative religious establishment of the country and the House of Saud (that favours a modicum of reform in response to the challenge of modernity) is fraying at the edges. A conflict such as this one tends to put this power struggle on the back burner. Second, there is an attempt by King Salman to elevate his son, Defense Minister Prince Mohammad, over the legitimate aspirations and expectations of two half brothers in line to succeed him, especially Crown Prince Muqrin. If this Saudi intervention in Yemen should succeed, it would be a crowning glory for the young pretender to the throne who has fashioned it in order to launch Saudi Arabia as the new policeman of the region after disillusionment with the US following its nuclear deal with Iran. If it fails, the bell will not just toll for him.