Defending Saudi Arabia means Pakistan being party to Saudi excesses in Yemen
Prime Minister Imran Khan understandably chose Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first foreign visit.
PM Khan vowed to ‘not let’ anyone attack the Saudi kingdom after being interviewed in the aftermath of the trip.
Paradoxically, he also maintained that Pakistan would want to play a “positive role” in the Yemen conflict and in the Middle East at large.
Over 16,000 people have been killed in the Saudi led onslaught in Yemen since March 2015. Famine is spreading and schools becoming obsolete as an entire generation of Yemenis being pulverized by Riyadh.
The conflict originates in the Houthi rebels loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh challenging the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi government’s authority having boycotted the election that had brought him to power in 2012.
As the Shia Houthi rebels continued to clash with Sunni tribes, the former’s takeover of Sana’a, and the presidential compound therein, close to the southern border of the Saudi kingdom triggered Riyadh’s fear about a ‘Shia Crescent’ being designed to engulf it.
A Saudi led military intervention ensued, beginning with Operation Decisive Storm, which unleashed a storm of bloodshed in Yemen, where the casualties haven’t been limited to militants.
The dynamics of the Saudi-Iran proxy wars in the region notwithstanding, Riyadh’s reaction to the conflict in Yemen has been disproportionate and misplaced to a point that the kingdom has regularly committed war crimes.
The volume of Saudi paranoia can be discerned by the fact that Riyadh didn’t settle for the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), nine months into the Yemen war Saudi Arabia created the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) – a misnomer for a Sunni dominated alliance designed to serve Saudi geopolitical interests in the region.
Pakistan as watchdog
Pakistan already has a bilateral security agreement with Saudi Arabia, with over 1,500 troops guarding the kingdom from external attacks, with the touted reason being the security of the Haramain Sharifain.
In reality Islamabad plays the role of Saudi watchdog, with Pakistanis training Saudi forces as well, in addition to participating in the abovementioned proxy battles in Syria, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East.
Therefore, the veracity of Islamabad’s continued assertion of neutrality and the claim that the IMCTC doesn’t have a sectarian change or isn’t designed against any country notwithstanding, Pakistan has been party to Saudi wars in the region even before the Yemen crisis.
Entanglement in Yemen
Even so, even if one were to ignore Pakistan’s historical involvement in proxy wars in the Middle East on behalf of Saudi Arabia, Islamabad is entangled in Yemen as long as it plays the role of Saudi watchdog.
For, although Islamabad continues to reiterate that no Pakistani military personnel is directly involved in Yemen, Islamabad’s role as trainer and guardian of Saudi Arabia domestically ensures that Riyadh has enough resources freed up to play war games elsewhere.
Hence, even if one overlooked the reports that Pakistan Air Force pilots have been flying Saudi jets during Riyadh’s operations in Yemen, Islamabad is heavily involved in a war that its Parliament passed a resolution to maintain neutrality on.
And therefore, even by merely defending Saudi Arabian territory, Pakistan ends up being party to the Saudi excesses in Yemen.
Despite the Pakistani community living in the kingdom, and the ideological affiliation with the Islamic sites situated in Saudi Arabia, the primary binding factor between Riyadh and Islamabad is economic.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit hinged on receiving economic allowances from Riyadh, which would at the very least ease the pressure of the impending International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, if not help Islamabad dodge it completely.
Saudi Arabia has given Pakistan financial incentives to participate in its wars, and help spread its radical Islamist ideology, and that continues to be Riyadh’s strategy with regards to Islamabad and the Yemen war.
In fact, Saudi Arabia wants Imran Khan to vocally back the IMCTC to provide more credence to the coalition. That hasn’t transpired in the aftermath of the Pakistani premier’s Saudi visit, even if “defending Saudi Arabia against attacks” is usually interpreted in Riyadh as all-out compliance from Islamabad.
Imran Khan’s duplicity
There is nothing surprising in Pakistan continuing to toe the Saudi line in the Middle East, but it underlines Imran Khan’s own duplicity and the hollowness of his mantra of change.
While one can understand the dumping of the pre-election narrative of ‘breaking the begging bowl’ and shunning aid as blatant populism, and the ensuing hunt for it as an evident necessity, it is Khan’s betrayal of his own anti-war narrative that sticks out like a sore thumb.
As someone who has refused to own Pakistan’s integral role in the War on Terror by calling it the US War, Islamabad’s continued involvement in the Yemen War negates his claims of bringing Pakistan out of foreign powers’ power-plays.
What hence is happening is that Pakistan continues to be military involved in Saudi conflicts that are ideologically designed to target Iran. And the only change that Imran Khan has brought about is the signature that would be put on papers where Pakistan acquiesces to be involved in the Yemen war in exchange for petro-riyals.
The author is a Lahore-based journalist. He is a correspondent for The Diplomat, and The Asia Times and contributes to various Pakistani and international publications. He tweets @khuldune