To say that the Middle East never ceases to surprise is an understatement. Players in the region throw curveballs just when they are least expected. This time, it’s Saudi Arabia’s turn to pitch, and the kingdom’s airstrikes in Yemen have initiated what could be a dramatic turn of events. For its closest client state, where Saudi Arabia goes, Pakistan follows with blind obedience.
When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif departed for Riyadh at the beginning of March, few eyebrows were raised in Pakistan. The Pakistani premier was simply going to meet the newly crowned king and catch up with old friends in the royal court. There were murmurs of Saudis wanting Pakistani help to control Iranian influence in the region, but the honorable prime minister played hard to get and gave a tenuous no to Pakistan’s patrons in Riyadh. After receiving a $1.5 billion “friendly grant” from Saudi Arabia at the beginning of his term, Sharif was playing hard to get. The prime minister managed to receive the $1.5 billion without ever publicly committing to Saudi’s regional interests.
The Qatari emir soon made his way to Islamabad, talking about billions of dollars of investments and boosting trade ties with Pakistan. As the emir departed, a tanker carrying Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG), the first such shipment, arrived, signaling the beginning of a deal estimated to be worth $22 billion. With this deal, something was brewing, but it was hard to read the signals coming out of Islamabad.
It was only when the Saudis announced the formation of a coalition and the initiation of airstrikes in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that the pieces of the puzzle fell into place: Pakistan delayed making a decision and extracted a better deal from its patrons, and was now en route to getting embroiled in yet another regional conflict that would involve the extravagant use of proxies.
With a Pakistani delegation arriving in Riyadh on April 1, it was all but certain that a deal had been reached between the two countries. The Saudi news agency was the first to break the news, stating that a number of countries, including Pakistan, have “expressed desire to participate in the operation.” Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam, iterated that “the Saudi request to become part of its coalition against Yemeni rebels is currently being examined.” Sharif gave the knockout punch, telling participants at a high-level meeting in Islamabad that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan. All three sources could have simply said that Pakistan will be handsomely paid for agreeing to join the Saudis and their allies in containing an Iranian threat in Yemen. Reports have already confirmed that Pakistan has provided naval support to the ongoing airstrikes in Yemen.
It was expected that the delegation would smooth over the details of the deal, agree upon the dollar amount, and dutifully dispatch an unknown number of forces to serve the Saudi monarchy. Pakistan’s nascent democracy and vocal media, however, created a hindrance for the government. Opposition parties in Pakistan demanded an All Parties Conference to discuss developments in Yemen, and the prime minister responded by calling for a joint session of Parliament to be held on April 6.
Such was the seriousness of the debate that Imran Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, ended its months-long boycott of parliament. As parliament debates the country’s policy with regards to Yemen, the Iranian foreign minister is also expected to visit Islamabad next week. Ongoing developments have placed Sharif in a tough situation requiring him to find a way to fulfill Saudi requests while placating the opposition at home.
While Pakistan will have to take into account its own interests, the vocal debate within Pakistan will be used as a bargaining chip to extract more concessions and dollars from the Saudis. Ultimately, financial constraints and the need to keep its patrons happy will lead to Pakistan’s engagement in the conflict. How significant this contribution is remains to be seen, but one can expect naval resources, fighter jets, and some form of special operations contingent to join the coalition.
Inflows of billions of dollars, a preferential LNG deal with Qatar, and promises for further “friendly grants” will allow Sharif’s government to deliver on its promises of economic development. However, getting embroiled in a clash between two regional powers — Saudi Arabia and Iran — split between civilizational and sectarian lines, is bound to have dramatic near- and long-term challenges for Pakistan’s security.
With violence against Shiites and minorities already out of control in Pakistan, a policy decision to exchange forces for dollars will surely feed the flames that are ravaging the country. It will also lead to a response from Iran, which will surely reply in kind along their mutual Balochistan border, doing everything in its power to make Pakistan pay for its alliance with the Saudis. Sectarian militant organizations — both of the extremist Shiite and Sunni kind — will up the ante, risking the unraveling of hard-fought gains against militants in recent months.
At a time when internal issues are causing irreparable damage to Pakistan, the decision to join an anti-Iran alliance with Saudi Arabia is futile, as it will antagonize Iran, fuel sectarian conflict at home, and distract a military fighting a war on its western front. Alas, for Pakistan, it signals a continuation of past trends, where the country has sold its strategic interests to the highest bidder: like Pakistani pilots flying Saudi planes to repel Yemeni forces in 1969 or Gen. Zia ul-Haq taking billions of dollars in aid to help the mujahedeen forces against the Soviets in the 1980s. Sharif’s government is simply opening a new chapter in this established tradition.
It would be unfair to argue that Sharif — or the military — is in a position to deny the Saudis. Without financial independence, a nation cannot pursue an independent foreign policy. Given Pakistan’s consistent need for foreign funding to keep the economy afloat, it cannot say no to its patrons. This time around, it will be parliament and not a dictator making the decision. This is the only positive outcome from the situation.
Justin Tallis – WPA Pool/Getty Images