As Saudi Arabia's crown prince meets Pakistan Army chief, Imran Khan faces tough decision on military action in Yemen

The newly minted prime minister of Pakistan has a major decision coming up. That decision is probably going to be decided for him by the military, but in his newness, he's likely to balk at complete surrender.

This immediate burning question is to do with Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations. Asia Times recently reported about a meeting between Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and Pakistan's chief of army staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Mina. Apparently, the Saudis believe that open support from Imran Khan for military action against Yemen would be valuable in shoring up international backing for Saudi military action in Yemen. In short, the Saudis are gently applying the pressure, cheque in one hand and gun in the other. For those who think large amount of ‘aid’ comes without strings, this is an important lesson.

File photo of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. AP

File photo of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. AP

The whole issue is something of a carry over from the past. Pakistan has always been a bit wary of getting involved with Saudi Arabia’s muscular policy against Yemen. In 2015, the country's Parliament had vociferously opposed sending troops for such a mission. The rather grandly named Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) formed in December 2015 may have boasted of nearly 40 members, but in most parts of the world, it was seen as more of an anti-Iran platform, than a body that was fighting the good fight against terrorism.

But beggars can't be choosers. Saudi Arabia has slowly but surely elevated itself to the ranks of top aid givers. From 2007 to February 2017, Saudi Arabia disbursed $32.65 billion to 999 projects in 78 countries. Data indicates that Pakistan is among the top beneficiaries, receiving some $562 million for some 99 projects. Earlier this year, the Saudis also provided an additional $1 billion. On offer is another $4 billion from the Islamic Development Bank aimed at stabilising an urgent balance of payment crisis. Pakistani financial circles are also well aware that the bank is likely to impose far less financial conditions than the IMF.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the former chief of army staff General Raheel Sharif took over command of the coalition forces in April 2017. The government dodged questions on the controversial appointment, stating that this was a personal choice of the General. It goes without saying that an appointment of this kind immediately after his retirement could hardly have taken place without the express authorisation of the Foreign Office, and more importantly, from the Army High Command. This meant that Pakistan could conveniently continue to ‘condemn’ violence in Yemen, while at the same time providing all but open assistance to the Saudis.

It's not that Pakistan-Saudi military relations are at all unusual. Some Pakistani troops were known to be stationed in Saudi Arabia more or less permanently (and flying their aircraft) after they had first been inducted in 1979, when the Grand Mosque was seized by fundamentalist elements. Following the formation of the Saudi-led coalition, reports emerged of the Pakistani navy providing some assistance to the Saudis off Yemen, in terms of implementing an arms embargo against Houthi ‘terrorists’.

In 2017, a Saudi contingent was part of the Republic Day parade. Most importantly, however, the Saudis are known to have bankrolled Pakistan’s nuclear program in its early days. To date, the then Saudi defence minister Prince Sultan remains the only foreigner ever to have been allowed into a nuclear facility. Indeed, it was barred even to Benazir Bhutto. However, the abrupt announcement of the movement of a reported brigade strength of troops to Riyadh was made only in February 2018, with a rather abrupt announcement from DG ISPR. This was clearly a decision reached in Rawalpindi, without any debate apparent in Parliament, and at a time of severe political turmoil.

A kind of quasi-back door support did suit earlier Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had good reason to be personally grateful to the Saudis for them providing shelter when he was imprisoned by a vengeful military. It did mean supporting Saudi Arabia’s sectarian agenda, and a consequent falling out with Iran. But Sharif and his brother never had much of a standing with Shia groups anyway. Shahbaz Sharif in particular all but had an electoral “alliance” with the extreme right, and the highly sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba/Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat in particular.

That’s not the case with Imran, who campaigned on an anti-sectarian agenda, even if he was seen to be close to various terrorist elements. Imran can hardly now do a complete turn around, after opposing Pakistani involvement in the Saudi-led coalition. Besides, backing the Saudi war is not just likely to create internal chaos as Shias resist it violently, it will create severe imbalance in an already strained Pakistan-Iran relationship.

Apart from that, it's not going to go down well with the US and its allies. Canada’s ambassador was recently expelled from Saudi Arabia, after criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record. A visit to Riyadh is slated for next month. He has a few days to consult his foreign minister and other members of the cabinet. There is a way out. Three years ago, he had stated that Pakistan should function as a mediator, rather than participate in the Yemen conflict. That could be an offer to his benefactors.

The problem is that mediation is rather impossible if your army is party to the war. For mediation to succeed, the Pakistani army and air force elements need to withdraw. That won't suit Riyadh at all. What they want is a bold figurehead for the charge. For Imran, it’s a choice between the devil and the deep in what could be a first step in declaring his independence, and unfortunately, also equally showcasing an acceptance of a risk of survival.

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Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 21:34:11 IST

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