By Patrick Bahzad
The members of the Pakistani Parliament have spoken – or maybe it was the Chiefs of Staff in Rawalpindi. Pakistan will not commit ground troops to a land-based operation against the Yemeni "Houthi" rebels. The news arrived on Friday and have stunned several Arab States, mostly Saudi-Arabia, but also the United Arab Emirates. In the US as well, a sense of disbelief seemed to prevail among the usual proponents of the anti-Iran faction.
Pakistan's decision has drawn sharp criticism from these players, yet it is based on an instinct of self-preservation and national interest that should not come as a surprise, even to those advocating for a more aggressive approach in Yemen. What is at stake for Pakistan is not just its alliances with countries in the Gulf, but its standing in the future geopolitical landscape at the intersection of the Middle-East and South-Asia.
A decision made in defiance of military and economic ties
The violence of the reaction to Pakistan's declared "neutrality" with regard to the Saudi led coalition can only be interpreted as an indicator of the upset this decision has caused. In very undiplomatic terms, Anwar Gargash – the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – has hinted at the serious consequences the Pakistani reluctance might have and openly declared, Pakistan could pay a heavy price for its "unexpected" position. The Saudi reaction has not been as vocal, but it goes without saying that Riyadh can't have been thrilled either.
Both Gulf countries, Saudi-Arabia and the UAE, are pumping massive amounts of money into Pakistan, year in year out. The Emiratis have built-up substantial trade relations in recent years, while the Saudis have always provided relief funding to bolster the faltering Pakistani budget. Last year alone, Saudi-Arabia has injected 1.5 billion US dollars into the bottomless pit that is the Pakistani Treasury. Riyadh has also been there in times of need for current Pakistani Prime-minister, Nawaz Sharif, for example when he needed shelter at the end of 1999, after the Pakistani army under General Musharraf had organised a coup and ousted the legitimate government.
With regard to operation "Decisive Storm", Riyadh and Abu Dabi expected – or rather demanded – Pakistan to repay its debt, as it had always done in the past. Up until now, Islamabad had never bulked at the finger snapping from the Gulf. After the seizure on the Great Mosque of Mecca by Saudi fundamentalists in 1979, which had been organized in part by a brother of Osama Bin Laden, as many as 20 000 Pakistani troops were dispatched to the Kingdom, in an effort to strengthen its defences against any challenge from within. That is also the reason why the "Saudi Arabian National Guard" recruited a number of ex-Pakistani military over the years, to fill its ranks with troops more apt at fighting local insurgents and – even more importantly – more loyal to orders coming from the House of Saud.