Analysis - Security Studies

Neutral Support

Implications of Pakistan's position on Operation Decisive Storm
Tuesday، April 28، 2015
Neutral Support

On 10 April, after five days of marathon sessions, the Pakistani parliament voted unanimously in favor of a resolution urging the cabinet of Nawaz Sharif to remain neutral in the crisis in Yemen, and stay out of the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm launched by the ten country-strong coalition on 26 March against the Houthis and security forces loyal to  former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Instead the Pakistani legislature's resolution emphasized that Pakistan should play a mediating role and maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis. It also called on the Pakistani government to initiate steps before the U.N. Security Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. But while declining a military role, the Pakistani lawmakers vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Arabia and pledged to defend the Gulf country if its territorial sovereignty and integrity were violated.

But the diplomatic language evident in the "wording" and "conditioning" of the Pakistani Parliament's resolution does not hide the nature of Pakistan's "dilemma position". This position is characterized by "ambiguity", "hesitation" while attempting to strike a balance between Pakistan's friendships and alliances with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, on the one hand, and the opportunities and risks implied  in the domestic  situation and regional power balance, in particular with Iran following its recent nuclear framework agreement with the P5+1 group of world powers, on the other. Pakistan's position on Operation Decisive Storm has oscillated between providing political support and showing a keen interest in staying out of the military operation in bid to respond to Saudi Arabia's demands and at the same time to avoid any measures that would spark enmity with Iran.

UAE's criticisms

Pakistani lawmakers’ call for the government to remain neutral on the escalating crisis in Yemen evoked a strong response from UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Anwar Gargash, who took to the social media site twitter to criticize the results of the Pakistani parliament's vote  as "vague, contradictory, dangerous and unexpected from Islamabad." The UAE minister also said that "Pakistan needs to take a clear position for the sake of its strategic relationship with Arab Gulf states.  Gargash said that "Contradictory positions on this issue" will mean that Pakistan would "pay a heavy price."  

Gargash explained: "The Arabian Gulf is in a dangerous and fateful confrontation and its strategic security is at stake, and the moment of truth distinguishes between the real ally from those of media statements." The UAE minister even accused Pakistan of favoring neighboring Iran, and China which promised Islamabad to build a pipeline to bring natural gas from Iran to Pakistan although the Gulf countries accuse Iran of backing the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pakistan's Interior Minister hit back at Gargashs' remarks saying  that they are in stark violation of all diplomatic norms.

Timeline: Pakistan's relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

  • Cooperation between Islamabad and Riyadh was established four decades ago. In 1969, the Pakistani-Saudi military relations were established when Pakistani Air Force personnel piloted Saudi jet fighters and repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border.
  • After India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto managed to convince three Arab leaders, including the late Saudi King Faisal bin Abdulaziz, to back  Islamabad's nuclear program with at least US$1.1 billion in funds.
  • Between US$300 and US$400 million of the Arab funds meant for Pakistan's nuclear program were transferred to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
  • In early 1990's, approximately 15,000 Pakistani soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom after Iraq's Saddam Hussein regime invaded Kuwait in 1990.
  • After US sanctions were imposed on Pakistan for conducting nuclear tests, Saudi Arabia promised to supply 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help its ally cope with the economic aftermath.
  • In 1999, Saudi Arabia hosted Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he was deposed by a military coup d'etat led by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Pervez Musharraf.
  • In 2008, signs emerged that Pakistan had military cooperation with Saudi Arabia as part of the Kingdom's efforts to develop and acquire non-conventional capabilities including ballistic missiles using Pakistani experts to counter the Kingdom's regional arch-rival Iran's ambitions.  U.S-based think tanks noted that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia maintained military cooperation to help the Kingdom acquire nuclear capabilities to counter the progress of Iran's nuclear program.
  • In 2014, and following an exchange of visits between Saudi and Pakistani officials, Islamabad received what it called a US$1.5 billion gift from Riyadh who sought to dissuade Pakistan from its neutrality on the crisis in Syria and called for the establishment of a Syrian transitional government. Responding to  a request from Saudi Arabia, Islamabad sent Pakistani trainers to train Syrian opposition fighters.
  • Pakistan and Saudi Arabia never stopped their joint military exercises and maneuvers and exchange of experts. On 22 March 2015, just a few days before Operation Decisive Storm was launched, units of the Special Forces of the Pakistani Army arrived in Saudi Arabia to participate in joint exercises with Saudi Royal Air Force and a Saudi Royal Land Forces' duty contingent, in the fifth edition of the exercise, 'al-Samsam' where training was focused on war in hard mountainous terrain environments and in irregular operations and the integration between land forces and air forces.

Pakistan's domestic calculus

In the light of the ongoing crisis in Yemen, Pakistan had to emphasize its backing for Saudi Arabia and the whole GCC bloc. In addition to the qualitative and historic political, military and economic relations, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries have large investments in Pakistan, while millions of Pakistani live and work in the GCC countries  and help in bolstering their home country's economy by their remittances. GCC countries back Pakistan with large extensive financial aid and donations at times of crisis to cope with the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, famine and drought.

However it is mainly rhetoric, not actions when it comes to Pakistan's ways of showing support to the Gulf countries, where Islamabad favors media and political backing over practical and military support. The following domestic factors explain this approach:

  1. Despite the fact that strengthening the Pakistani-GCC relations is high on the agenda of the  Muslim League led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and that Pakistan's constitution gives the prime minister complete control over the armed forces, Pakistan's participation in Operation Decisive Storm was  not unanimously backed by the various Pakistani political parties in the government. Of note, the Pakistani foreign  ministry, in February, indirectly expressed reservations about Riyadh's role in funding Islamic  charities and madrassas in Pakistan.
  2. There is talk in some Pakistani circles about opposition to the role that religious foundations and charities backed by some Arab countries play inside Pakistan's military following the attack conduced in mid-December 2014 by Pakistani Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, killing 132 school children, and injuring 130 others.
  3. The Pakistani opposition parties strongly opposed any Pakistani military intervention in the ongoing war in Yemen. Leader of the opposition at the National Assembly, Syed Khursheed Shah, warned the government  against making any decision to send Pakistani troop overseas or participate in the war with or against any involved party, and called on the Pakistani government to play a mediating role that would spare the Muslim Nation further divisive conflicts. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan, warned the government against participating in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm. The government (in late 2014) put an end to months of countrywide sit-in protests staged by PTI and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), led by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, against the results of the elections that placed the current government in power.
  4. The huge challenge that Islamabad is facing is that it is torn between its obligations to Saudi Arabia and to domestic obligations to succeed in two security operations in tribal provinces and Sindh Province to eradicate "terrorism and crime" and counter the Pakistani Taliban.  The latest Pakistani Taliban attack was in mid-march in which it carried out bombings outside two Churches in the city of Lahore killing 14 people, and attacked Armed Forces installations and police stations in Waziristan as part of its plan to penetrate the heart of Pakistani state.
  5. The sectarian composition of Pakistan's population makes it difficult for the government to take a clear position on the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm that is feared to fuel sectarian strife where 10 percent of the country's population of 196 million people are Shia making Pakistan the world's second largest Shia community after that of Iran. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, was a Shia Ismaili by birth and a Twelver Shia by confession.                 

Pakistan's calculus vs. the Iranian variable

Regarding Pakistan's other calculations, it was noticed in the past two years that, because of the hurdles that ultimately led to the freezing of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, relations between the two countries were dubbed as "cold peace" that sometimes "border skirmishes" along the borderlines where  clashes erupt in the the south-eastern Iranian province of Sistan-Balu­chistan, which borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. On 29 December 2014, three members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards have been killed in a cross-border attack by the Sunni militant group, Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice) which in February claimed responsibility for kidnapping five Iranian border guards and taking them to Pakistan. Pakistan accused the Iranians of entering Pakistani territory on the pretext of cracking down on militants.

But the relationship between Iran and Pakistan remains under control and has not seen serious aggravation for the following reasons:

  1. Islamabad and Tehran maintain strategic cooperation that is linked with Pakistan's contribution to the development of Iran's nuclear program, and understandings on constructing the Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline, also known as the Peace pipeline, or IP Gas, from South Pars gas field in the south west of Iran to Karachi and the south-east coast of Pakistan. The 2700-kilometer long pipeline is estimated to cost about US$7.5 billion.
  2. Both countries observe with caution the developments in Afghanistan pending a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
  3. Washington's bid to forge a strategic partnership with India is pushing Pakistan to promote its relations with its neighbor, Iran, and protect these relations from the "Shia-Sunni differences" as much as possible.
  4. Reaching a nuclear framework agreement with the P5+1 group of world powers, led by the U.S., emphasizes the fact that regional and international  alliances are susceptible to change. Pakistan's alignment with either party now would deprive the other from benefiting from the potential changes.

Having said that, Nawaz Sharif's government seeks to maintain balance between its close ties with Saudi Arabia and its relations with Tehran in a way that does not affect Pakistan's domestic situation or cause tensions with Iran. Which is why Pakistan has come up with this position whereby it provides media and political support for Operation Decisive Storm while not participating in direct military action.

Keywords: Saudi ArabiaYemenUAEPakistanOperation Decisive Storm