April 18, 2015
The sending of troops to fight in Yemen on behalf of Saudi Arabia and its allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council has seen overwhelming opposition in Pakistan. In a country that has in recent times been marked by internal divisiveness and a lack of social and political cohesion, it is astonishing to see such unprecedented and sweeping consensus amongst many different stakeholders.
On April 10, 2015, the Pakistani parliament unanimously turned down a direct request from King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud for Pakistani troops and military support. None of the country’s major political parties have suggested that this was an unwise decision to have made, and the Pakistani press and social media outlets stands equally united in voicing the sentiment that this Peninsula war is one that Pakistan needs to stay out of.
Similarly, the Pakistani military, often the decisive factor in much of the country’s foreign policy decision-making, appears to lack the enthusiasm to engage in an open-ended involvement in Yemen. For many in the military the disastrous Egyptian experience in the 1960s strikes a sharp warning bell, and serves as an active reminder that Yemen is a notoriously difficult country to control.
Saudi Arabia’s articulated rationale for the confrontation in Yemen, namely that of restoring the “legitimate” government in Sanaa, is viewed with a dose of healthy skepticism and perhaps also overt cynicism by many Pakistanis. Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states strongly supported the overthrow of the Libyan and Egyptian regimes, and most are actively involved in trying to topple the government in Syria. Why then, is it only in Yemen that an Arab presidency is to be considered a sacrosanct institution? The perception across Pakistan appears to be that the GCC’s campaign again the Houthis is a transparently sectarian action, one primarily driven by Saudi Arabia’s interest in countering Iran’s growing influence across the region.
It is this perception that has led Pakistanis to feel that their military should not be used as a mercenary force to achieve the Kingdom’s regional geo-political objectives. The supposed financial benefits that may be reaped through supporting the Kingdom in its Yemen war has also not gained popular traction in Pakistan’s public sphere. Many consider this notion itself an insult, as though the military of Pakistan rather than being accountable to its own people can be bought at will by the highest international bidder.
Pakistan shares a long border and an even longer history with Iran, and also hosts one of the world’s largest Shia populations. The country cannot afford to alienate either its neighbor or its own populous Shia minority that stands at about thirty million. Sending military forces to Yemen at the behest of the GCC will certainly be viewed as a provocative act by Iran, and may well serve to agitate simmering sectarian sentiment within Pakistan. Pakistan has already suffered sporadically from sectarian conflict within its own borders, often agitated by proxy groups from abroad. If the state were to overtly engage in a sectarian war across the Arabian Sea, there would surely be some serious repercussions to be faced at home.
And home is where most Pakistanis feel that the national attention and energy needs to remain at the moment. The country continues to contend with Islamic militants in the north-west, and for the sake of its own security and stability cannot afford to have its military distracted from its domestic fight against terror by a foreign campaign which has far less direct significance.
The rest of the world has long been telling Pakistan that the best thing it can do for regional and global stability is to clean up its mess at home. For us in Pakistan, at least on this occasion we are seeing a rare moment of national agreement that this indeed is what we must prioritize.
Zahra Babar, a native of Pakistan, is the Associate Director of Research at the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Her publications include Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf (co-edited with Mehran Kamrava), Food Security in the Middle East (co-edited with Suzi Mirgani), and the forthcoming Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC.