The Dangerous, Delicate Saudi-Pakistan Alliance

Riyadh and Islamabad have long been close friends and military partners, but Pakistan can ill afford to anger Iran as it mulls entering the war in Yemen.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Prime Minister of Pakistan Muhammad Nawaz Sharif holds a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the White Room of Number 10 Downing Street on April 30, 2014 in London, England. During his visit to the UK, Mr Sharif is scheduled to meet with David Cameron, address an Investment Conference and meet members of the Pakistani Diaspora.  (Photo by Oli Scarff - WPA Pool /Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Prime Minister of Pakistan Muhammad Nawaz Sharif holds a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the White Room of Number 10 Downing Street on April 30, 2014 in London, England. During his visit to the UK, Mr Sharif is scheduled to meet with David Cameron, address an Investment Conference and meet members of the Pakistani Diaspora. (Photo by Oli Scarff - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

The former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal once described ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries without any official treaty.”

The intimate friendship goes back decades. In 1969, Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets to thwart Yemeni incursions into the kingdom. Islamabad and Riyadh closely coordinated support for the mujahideen in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s; and during that decade, Pakistan stationed upwards of 15,000 troops in the kingdom. Pakistani troops returned to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War to protect it from an Iraqi invasion. And Saudi Arabia reportedly donated oil supplies to Pakistan after Islamabad was hit by sanctions for conducting nuclear tests in 1998.

Last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assured Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz that the full resources of Pakistan’s army are behind him as the kingdom attempts to quash Yemen’s Houthi rebellion, which receives some support from Iran. But don’t expect Pakistan to go all-in on Saudi Arabia’s war. Sharif understands that he must walk a tightrope when it comes to this particular regional conflict.

News reports, particularly from the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, have claimed active Pakistani involvement in Operation Decisive Storm, as the anti-Houthi operation is called. Pakistan is said to have already dispatched jets and naval ships to take part in the operations. These reports may be part of a Saudi strategy to compel Pakistani involvement. Alternatively, some elements of the Pakistani government may have brashly made specific pledges of support to the Saudis, either due to Riyadh’s pressure or a desire to keep it happy. But if Islamabad did indeed assent to Saudi requests, domestic and regional realities may have forced it to backtrack, with the Pakistani defense minister stating just days later that his government has not made a decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia. That reversal may have been something Islamabad, which has been reluctant to involve itself in Saudi Arabia’s wars, desired anyway.

Sharif’s moral support for the Saudis is clear. And he has tilted his country toward the regional Saudi-led Sunni bloc. But the costs for direct involvement are greater for Pakistan than for any other coalition member. Pakistan shares a 565-mile-long border with Iran and relations between the two countries have long been rocky. If Iran starts to view Pakistan as an active adversary, it has many opportunities to cause trouble across the border that Sharif cannot afford.

Sharif chaired a five-and-a-half-hour-long meeting of senior civilian and military officials last Thursday to discuss his country’s role in the Yemen conflict. After the meeting, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, who, along with National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz, visited Riyadh on Tuesday, said that Pakistan would defend Saudi Arabia against any threat to its territorial integrity. But he also claimed that Pakistan is not joining any war. Earlier in the day, Sharif said in a statement that there is no room for sectarianism in Pakistan, comments which were likely influenced by the reports of his country’s involvement in the Yemen war.

This is all part of Sharif’s now well-established pattern of accommodating some Saudi demands, while also wisely resisting actions that would further antagonize Iran or strain Pakistan’s resources.

In recent years, Islamabad has balked at Saudi requests for assistance, including for the deployment of 15,000 Pakistani troops to the kingdom in 2014. This is in part because roughly 30 percent of Pakistan’s active-duty troops have been deployed in the country’s northwest since 2009 fighting against the Taliban insurgency. Troop levels along the Afghanistan border will remain constant until 2019, leaving Pakistan with a reduced presence along its tense eastern border with India — and few troops to spare for anywhere else.

But even if the officials in Riyadh were able to convince Sharif and his generals to dispatch Pakistani forces to the Persian Gulf, such a force would likely be limited in its mandate. Pakistan could send a modest contingent of soldiers and even pilots to Saudi Arabia, but any Pakistani assistance will be likely restricted to Saudi territory. It is difficult to imagine Pakistan engaging in any activity on sovereign Yemeni territory.

In recent years, Pakistan has been responsive to Saudi inducement — but only up to a point. Last year, after a flurry of visits by Saudi and Pakistani officials to their respective capitals, Pakistan received a grant of $1.5 billion — described by the Pakistani finance minister as “gift” with no strings attached. Islamabad initially kept the source of the aid secret, but later revealed that the donor was Riyadh. The donation was made after Pakistan, in a joint statement with Saudi Arabia, abandoned its policy of non-interference in Syria, calling for the formation of a “transitional government” in the civil war-ravaged country. Subsequent media reports claimed that Pakistan provided anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, including the Chinese-made FN-16, to Syrian rebels via Saudi Arabia and dispatched small numbers of trainers at the request of Riyadh.

There have also been claims, mainly attributed to unnamed Saudi officials, that Pakistan could transfer a nuclear weapon to Saudi control or include Riyadh under Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella should Iran near or cross the nuclear threshold. Such reports, not so coincidentally, have appeared during negotiations between Iran and the West, and are likely part of a Saudi policy of nuclear ambiguity designed to compel Washington to take a harder line against Tehran.

The first senior Pakistani official to meet King Salman after he took the throne in January was Gen. Rashad Mahmood, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has operational control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Mahmood briefed Sharif before the president embarked on his visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with the new king. Whether or not nuclear cooperation was actually on the agenda, the meeting was likely meant to signal to Tehran and Washington that the Saudis could be interested in a nuclear weapon of their own.

Pakistan, which obtained nuclear weapons in the late 1990s, is unlikely to ever transfer a warhead to Saudi soil. Islamabad has assiduously worked toward becoming recognized as a legitimate, responsible nuclear power and has sought membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.* Giving nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia would undermine these efforts. Still, Islamabad has and will continue to allow itself to be used in Riyadh’s posturing toward Tehran and Washington with exaggerated claims of Pakistani nuclear and conventional military assistance.

In all of these cases, it becomes clear that Pakistan will aid Saudi Arabia but only in ways that will not distract from or exacerbate Islamabad’s primary security threats. And that’s precisely why Sharif and his government cannot afford to provoke Iran right now.

Tehran has a number of levers it can use vis-à-vis Islamabad. It could, for example, charge Pakistan penalties for failing to complete construction of a gas pipeline the two countries agreed to build in 2013. The accord mandated that Pakistan complete its portion of the pipeline by the end of 2014 and includes daily penalty charges of around $3 million in case of failure to do so. Islamabad, due to pressure from Washington, has yet to construct its portion of the pipeline. Fines haven’t been levied, though Iran has rejected Pakistani claims that they have been formally waived.

More worrisome is Tehran’s ability to play the sectarianism card. Pakistan, with over 4,000 deaths from Sunni-Shiite violence since 2007, is struggling to put the genie of sectarianism back in the bottle. Iran could add to Pakistan’s woes by using its proxies inside Pakistan to step up the targeted killings of Sunni militants and religious scholars, some of whom have come out in support of Saudi Arabia in recent days.

Iran could also increase its clandestine operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent years, Iranian assets have reportedly assassinated a Saudi intelligence official and Pakistani Sunni leaders in Karachi, But Iranian activity in Pakistan today is characterized by relative restraint compared to the 1980s, when Iran sought to export its revolution to Shiites across the world, including in Pakistan, where upwards of 20 percent of the population comes from Islam’s smaller sect. Iranian agents could also play a more active role in sectarian conflicts inside Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there has been an uptick in sectarian violence in recent months. Or Iran could partner with India to support political forces in Afghanistan hostile toward Pakistan.

Sharif understands the dangers. His government must attempt to defuse relations with Tehran in order to have stability at home. The prime minister visited Iran last May and declared that he was ready to “open a new page” in relations between the two countries. That might be a bit ambitious. The close relationship between Sharif, the Pakistan Army, and Riyadh means that they can never fully gain the trust of Tehran. But Sharif can at least hope to keep relations with Iran drama-free.

The Saudis have been there for Pakistan through thick and thin, and Islamabad has little choice but to provide limited assistance to Riyadh in response to its perceived threat from the Houthis in Yemen. But it can assuage Iranian concerns by continuing to engage it on securing their shared border, opening up a bilateral dialogue on stabilizing Afghanistan, and perhaps even positioning itself as an intermediary between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan, ravaged by terror for more than a decade, can ill-afford to become the next playground for an Iranian-Saudi proxy war. Nearly everyone in Pakistan, including the major Sunni parties, realizes this and opposes Pakistani intervention in Yemen. And so the Pakistani premier will continue to walk this tightrope.

* Correction, April 3, 2014: Pakistan has sought membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that it had attained membership. Return to reading.

Oli Scarff – WPA Pool /Getty Images

Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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