Friday, 24 April 2015

Pakistan in the Middle East

Pakistan’s long history of direct involvement with the Middle East is not usually the subject of much comment. Now there is reason to believe that Pakistan has played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the current crisis in Yemen.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when many Gulf countries, flush with oil money, purchased state-of-the-art military hardware, they had also to buy the technical expertise and the training to operate it. They looked to the nearest Muslim country with the capacity to provide this – Pakistan.  Over the years scores of Pakistani army and air force personnel have been posted to Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Pakistani naval officers also served in UAE, training local naval forces.

More recently, the turbulence affecting the Middle East has brought Gulf states even closer to Pakistan. External and internal threats have resulted in bilateral agreements between Pakistan and individual states that have provided security cover for them – for example, the recent military exercises conducted jointly by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi-Pakistan relationship may go even deeper.  There are reports that last year King Salman of Saudi Arabia – then Crown Prince – visited Islamabad and provided Pakistan with a $1.5 billion grant towards its nuclear programme, the other half of the deal guaranteeing the Saudis a nuclear weapon when, or if, needed. 

This special relationship might have been expected to result in strong Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia’s recent military involvement in the chaos that is tearing Yemen apart.  With the Houthi rebels installed as an interim government, the legitimate President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, fled to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the rebels, instituted a series of air strikes against them in an operation it dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm”.  At the same time it mustered a coalition of ten Middle East states that agreed to form a fighting force to defeat the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restore President Hadi to office.  To support this effort, Saudi Arabia called on Pakistan to contribute troops, a warship and aircraft to its coalition forces. The first response of the Pakistani government was to agree to join the coalition, and to offer its assistance.

This reaction must have sent shock waves through the Iranian leadership.  If Pakistan unleashed its formidable military capability against the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebels could well be defeated.  So Iran set in train a diplomatic effort designed to eliminate the possibility of direct Pakistani involvement in the conflict.

The diplomatic counter-attack began with an invitation from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the face of it a surprising move, since Turkey had also initially declared itself in support of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen.  Erdogan duly appeared in Tehran, no doubt wondering why the world’s leading Shi’ite Muslim state was seeking to hob-nob with the head of strongly Sunni Turkey. 

Some sort of secret deal must have been concluded, for a few days later Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, flew to Islamabad.  The London-based Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, reported from several sources that Zarif’s mission was to try to convince Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to join a coalition with Turkey now apparently no longer in support of Operation Decisive Storm against Saudi Arabia. The suggestion was rejected by both Sharif and Pakistan’s army commander, General Raheel Sharif.  Nothing daunted, Zarif held a press conference at which he appealed over the heads of the government to members of the Pakistani parliament, which was just then debating the Saudi request for Pakistan’s assistance.  

         Pakistan and Iran, he said, “need to work together to find a political solution. The people of Yemen should not have to face aerial bombardment," referring to Saudi’s air strikes against Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which had fallen into Houthi hands.  Zarif's appeal clearly found a responsive audience, for following his visit, parliament voted for Pakistan not to get involved in military action in Yemen, but to take on the role of mediator in the conflict.  Iranian diplomacy had secured a major success.   

It is not surprising that Pakistan’s declaration of neutrality in the Yemen conflict generated a sense of betrayal in the Arab world - “cowardly” and “exploitative” were some of the terms used by Gulf states to lambast Islamabad for not helping the Sunni effort. But as Baker Atyani, Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief, astutely remarked, the prime consideration in Pakistan’s refusal to join the call of its traditional allies in the Middle East was its own national interest.  After all, Iran adjoins Pakistan to the west, and Iran was supporting the Houthis. Had Pakistan chosen to take sides in Yemen, there was always the possibility that sectarian tensions within Pakistan, always ready to boil over, would be exacerbated.

So though Prime Minister Sharif had the constitutional right, following consultation with the armed forces, to send troops, he wisely decided to leave the matter to parliament thus deflecting political pressure and saving the country from possible civil disturbance. Other factors that doubtless weighed with the parliamentarians were that around a third of Pakistani troops are engaged in an internal war with militant groups, and that the eastern border with India is always on a state of alert. But at the end of the day, as Atyani observed, Pakistan is a South Asian entity, not a Middle Eastern one, and its decision not to be part of Saudi’s Operation Decisive Storm demonstrates that geopolitics is more important to Pakistan than chasing less pressing political interests.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s refusal to be drawn into the military operation must have been a precipitating factor in the next stage of the drama ­ Saudi’s announcement on April 21 that its Operation Decisive Storm would be terminated, to be replaced by a campaign called “Restoring Hope” aimed at rebuilding Yemen. Despite the fact that the Houthis still control the capital Sana’a, and that President Hadi remains in exile, the Saudis' somewhat unconvincing claim was that the operation had achieved its objectives.

Saudi coalition spokesman, Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, said that the decision to end Operation Decisive Storm was “based on a request by the Yemeni government and President Hadi," adding that the rebels no longer posed a threat to civilians. According to the Saudi defence ministry, the bombing campaign had succeeded in "destroying heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles which were seized by the Houthi militia".

It is no surprise that a triumphalist statement from the Iranian foreign ministry welcomed the end of the Saudi-led operation: "We had previously announced that there is no military solution to Yemen's crisis. Undoubtedly, the ceasefire and an end to killing innocent and defenceless people is a step forward."

The question is – a step forward to where?  An Iranian-dominated Yemen?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 April 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 April 2015:

Published in the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal, 3 June 2015:

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