By Nirupama Subramanian
April 10, 2015
A few days ago, there was this Facebook post by an angry Pakistani recalling what a Saudi Arabian cadet at a Pakistani military academy had told his course mates. The Saudi had been failing all his exams. Counselled by his course mates to pay more attention to his studies so that he would be better equipped to defend his country, the Saudi laughed it off. “I will pay you to protect my country”, he said.
The story may well be apocryphal. But there was no mistaking that confidence when Saudi Arabia announced last week that Pakistan would be part of the “Sunni alliance” in its war against the Houthis in Yemen. This time, though — and surely to the surprise of that Saudi cadet, who, if he really existed, must be an officer in the royal military by now — its ever-reliable client has not exactly jumped to obey.
Instead, the government first made a vague statement declaring that Pakistan would defend Saudi Arabia against attacks on the kingdom’s territorial integrity. Amid confusion over whether that meant Pakistan had already joined the alliance, the government delegation headed by the country’s defence minister and including military representatives visited Saudi Arabia to “assess” the situation. Then, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif passed the ball to parliament, where he asked the people’s representatives to “guide” the government and said he was “in no hurry” to take a decision on the Saudi request. After three days of a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate, the enthusiasm for a military entanglement on foreign shores, that too in the treacherous shifting sands of West Asia, was conspicuous by its absence.
The joint session went into a fourth day on Thursday. Though it is not yet an outright no to the “biradar country”, the reluctance on display is by itself a momentous shift for Pakistan, especially so now, when the country is headed by someone who owes everything he has to the Saudis. It was the Saudis who spirited him away from prison and a life sentence to luxurious exile in a Jeddah palace in 2000, after the Pervez Musharraf coup. And though they first opposed his return in 2007, it was they who later insisted that if Musharraf was going to allow Benazir Bhutto back into Pakistan, he must not prevent Nawaz from doing the same. Saudi officials have openly said they practically run Pakistan, and that Nawaz, a Sunni conservative on the right side of right-wing, is their favourite Pakistani ruler.
When Nawaz visited Saudi Arabia last month, none other than the new monarch, King Salman, was at the airport to roll out the red carpet. It was a gesture that the Saudis reserve only for very special guests. But they don’t indulge Pakistan for free. In return for cash bailouts at regular intervals and other favours, the Saudis have historically looked at Pakistan as a nuclear-armed ally that can help balance any threat from Iran. Military ties between the two countries are strong. The Pakistani air force flew Saudi fighter jets to repulse attacks from South Yemen in 1969, and Pakistani soldiers fought alongside Saudi troops to secure the Grand Mosque when it was seized by insurgents in 1979. A contingent of the Pakistan army has been stationed in Saudi Arabia for over three decades. For the Pakistani man on the street, the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two holy sites, is literally an article of faith. A Pew survey in 2013 found that 95 per cent of Pakistanis had a favourable opinion of the desert kingdom, and Pakistan was the only country in the Islamic world where favourable opinion about Saudi Arabia had increased.
In the face of all this, it is nothing less than extraordinary that Pakistan is taking its time to think over the Saudi “request” for air force jets, naval ships and ground troops. The joint session of parliament saw heated speeches, mostly suggesting that Saudi Arabia had enough resources to protect itself and Pakistan should not get involved. The third day’s session ended with a call for a diplomatic initiative to resolve the conflict. Lawmakers asked for a joint effort in this direction by Pakistan and Turkey.
The Pakistan army, and perhaps even Nawaz, knows that taking sides in this conflict will have consequences that can only deepen Pakistan’s own chaos. Wading into another country’s power struggle that the Saudis have deliberately and self-servingly projected as a Sunni-Shia conflict can only widen the sectarian fault line in Pakistan. Since 2008, from Karachi to Khyber, Parachinar to Quetta, thousands of Shias have been killed in attacks by homegrown militants, schooled in, what else, Saudi-funded madrasas and mosques.
Plus, the Pakistan army has made it clear that it has its hands full with the Taliban and Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and would not like to be distracted with a messy involvement in another country. Moreover, with Saudi Arabia openly baiting Tehran, the last thing the Pakistan army wants is tension on its shared border with Iran. Not surprisingly, even as parliament debated how it should respond to Saudi Arabia, the Iranian foreign minister flew to Islamabad to discuss a diplomatic initiative to end the conflict. He was received warmly, and Pakistan declared all support to the Iranian mission.
Certainly, it is not going to be easy for Nawaz to look Saudi Arabia in the eye and say no. Quite apart from his own special ties with the House of Saud and the money and oil at concessional rates that Saudi Arabia pumps into Pakistan, thousands of Pakistanis work in the kingdom, as they do in the other Gulf countries, and send home billions of dollars in remittances. If the Saudis decide to squeeze Pakistan, they have a number of ways in which to do it.
Hopefully, Pakistan will keep its nerve in the coming days and not succumb to Saudi pressure. Whatever the outcome, what is truly remarkable is that, perhaps for the first time, there is an open discussion in Pakistan on the nature of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, in its Parliament and in the media.
There have been lone voices before — only in January, a minister in Nawaz’s government blamed Saudi petrodollars for fuelling militant Islam in Pakistan. There have been laments and lampoons about the Arabisation of Pakistan at the expense of its South Asian moorings. But mostly there has been a collective and reverential silence. That silence has finally been broken, though even now there is no direct or open criticism of Saudi Arabia. Still, if this small start could spur a larger debate on the toxic Saudi role in the rise of extremism in Pakistan and how deadly the biradar’s embrace has been, Saudi military adventurism in Yemen would have had at least one positive consequence.