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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Pakistan is right to rethink its Yemen misstep

Pakistan's relationship with its Gulf allies will recover so long as Pakistan’s rulers demonstrate their commitment to it, writes Tom Hussain
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, right, proceeds with visiting Afghan President Asharf Ghani to review a guard of honor at the prime minister house in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Sharif has pledged his support to the Afghan President in his attempt to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, right, proceeds with visiting Afghan President Asharf Ghani to review a guard of honor at the prime minister house in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Sharif has pledged his support to the Afghan President in his attempt to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

Pakistan has been a geopolitically isolated and deeply unpopular state since the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, 25 years ago. Ever since, excluding transactional relationships, it has had just three allies – China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The United States is deeply invested in Pakistan but the relationship is characterised by mutual suspicion and can hardly be described as friendly.

Pakistan’s recent decisive actions against terrorists and its building of bridges with Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani were convincing reasons to believe it had reversed the policies that have isolated it, and that it was ready to assume a constructive participatory role in regional security.

However, the indecision Pakistan has shown in response to Saudi Arabia’s request that it join the coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen has raised serious questions about its commitment to key allies and its ability to judge its strategic interest.

The debate in Pakistan’s parliament, which wants prime minister Nawaz Sharif to opt out of the conflict, was characterised by a collective desire for Muslim unity. That is an idealistic notion, but one that’s central to Pakistan’s core identity as a country.

The intention may have been noble, but it ignored what Pakistani strategic affairs analysts had said since the launch of the Saudi Arabia-led Operation Decisive Storm. Pakistan must act in its own interest, dispassionately, and choose between its long-standing friends and Iran, a neighbour with which it has a testy relationship.

Obviously, the choice has difficult implications for Pakistan but it need look no further than China, upon which its national security is heavily reliant. Beijing has become a global power by acting unrelentingly in its national interest. It did so by establishing mutually beneficial relationships with nations beyond its backyard.

That said, it would be premature to conclude Pakistan will remain neutral in the Yemen conflict, as the non-binding parliamentary resolution “desires”.

That’s because the bigger story that emerged from Islamabad’s consultations with Riyadh, held before the parliamentary debate, was the government’s declaration that Saudi Arabia’s national security is a priority for Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The sentiments tweeted by Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, have helped to shift the political debate within Pakistan. The government has distanced itself from the parliamentary resolution, saying that opposition parties were responsible for the declaration of neutrality. In the official note issued on Saturday after Mr Sharif spoke to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Sharif criticised the Houthis outright.

It’s likely that the Pakistani prime minister and army chief of staff will travel to Riyadh this week and make the requisite political and military commitments. Whereas its military contribution might have been brigade-strength, had it joined its GCC allies in the first instance, it will now have to make a division-sized commitment, in an effort to reassure them. Feelings have been hurt and trust undermined, but Islamabad’s relationship with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is very strong. It goes back to the 1960s and has transcended politics. Repeatedly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bailed Pakistan out of dangerous crises triggered by geopolitical events and natural disaster.

The relationship will recover so long as Pakistan’s rulers demonstrate their commitment to it. By investing strategically in the Saudi-led coalition, Pakistan has a unique opportunity to build influence with a group of regional powers with global diplomatic reach. Through them, it would stand a far better chance of achieving objectives hitherto not acceptable to the wider international community.

The scope for that investment was described by analyst Theodore Karaskik on these pages. He wrote that the models for the proposed pan-Arab military force assumed a 15 per cent Pakistani component even though they are not Arab.

That is consistent with reports that surfaced during a March 2014 visit to Pakistan by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. At the time, it was suggested that Pakistan would contribute as many as 30,000 military personnel – mostly reservists – to the GCC Peninsula Shield.

Pakistan’s stated commitment to Saudi national security has wider implications too. It has an armoury of ballistic missiles that, in terms of reach and technology, can compete with any Asian strategic force.

As a deterrence, Pakistan’s robust commitment to Saudi security could correct the imbalance of strategic power created by non-Arab missile arsenals in the Middle East.

Tom Hussain is an independent journalist and analyst based in Islamabad

On Twitter: @tomthehack