RELIEVED PAKISTAN WELCOMES END OF SAUDI AIR CAMPAIGN IN YEMEN
King Salman and Nawaz Sharif
NEW DELHI: Pakistan breathed a heavy sigh of relief on Tuesday as Saudi Arabia announced the end of its military operation in Yemen. “This will pave the way for a political solution to the crisis,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam said in a statement, adding that “Pakistan shares the desire of Saudi Arabia for a peaceful settlement of the Yemeni crisis.”
Saudi Arabia -- that has been bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen since March 26 -- had asked Pakistan to join its military offensive, trapping the South Asian country between a rock and a hard place as it attempted to walk a tightrope between its close ties with the Saudi monarchy and the costs of involvement. Eventually, the Pakistani Parliament voted in favour of a resolution affirming the country’s “neutrality” on the conflict in Yemen.
The call for neutrality had its own complications as it evoked a sharp reaction from Saudi allies, with the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs warning Pakistan that it would pay a “high price” for its “ambiguous stand”. Although there was no other public consternation, analysts agree that behind-the-scene pressure from other Arab capitals prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to overstep protocol and issue a clarification of sorts. Sharif appeared in front of cameras in the company of his ministers and advisors and reiterated Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia.
“Pakistan does not abandon friends and strategic partners, especially at a time when their security is under threat,” Sharif said. “We are also in touch with other GCC countries to assure them that their disappointment was based on an apparent misinterpretation of parliament’s resolution,” the Prime Minister added. In what may be seen as an attempt to offer an olive branch to the Saudis, Sharif condemned the overthrow of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and referred to the Houthis as rebels -- the language here being at variance with the resolution that stressed on neutrality.
Pakistan’s grapevine, however, predicted that Sharif would do a u-turn and announce sending troops to Saudi Arabia to appease the Gulf countries. Fortunately for Pakistan, at least for now, the balancing act has been easened.
Pakistan could not afford to ignore Saudi Arabia’s request, given its close relations with the Saudi monarchy. This support was already a given. In addition to being allied in terms of Sunni sectarian identity, Pakistan continues to receive much-needed financial assistance from Riyadh. Last year, for instance, Pakistan reportedly received $1.5 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia to meet debt obligations and bolster its foreign exchange reserves. History, too, is indication of Pakistan’s commitment to Saudi Arabia. In 1990, Pakistan agreed to join an international coalition in defence of Saudi Arabia against Iraqi aggression.
At the same time, however, Pakistan had to be careful of its own relations with Iran -- with whom it shares a border and who reportedly support the Houthi rebels -- and it had to be mindful of not overextending the Pakistani army, that is already embroiled in a military offensive within the country’s own borders.
Meanwhile, Sharif is scheduled to travel to Riyadh on Thursday for continuing deliberations on the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia has decided to replace its air campaign Operation "Decisive Storm" with a new operation called "Renewal of Hope" that is aimed at protecting civilians and preventing Houthi fighters from operating.