Pakistan Part Of Saudi Led Anti-Terror Alliance Despite Initial Denials
Nawaz Sharif and King Salman
NEW DELHI: Pakistan -- that had just about rekindled its relationship with Saudi Arabia over involvement in Yemen -- found itself in a tough spot again as Saudi Arabia included it as part of its newly formed 34-nation military alliance of Muslim countries meant to combat terrorism. The trouble? As the alliance was announced, Pakistan claimed it was not consulted, only to change its stance a day later on Wednesday to confirm participation in the alliance.
“Pakistan… is awaiting further details to decide the extent of its participation in different activities of the alliance,” a statement issued by the Foreign Office on Wednesday said, confirming that it will be included in the alliance.
A day earlier, senior officials expressed surprise at Pakistan’s inclusion. As Dawn News reports, “Senior officials at the foreign ministry initially expressed surprise at Pakistan being included in the new group, and said that Riyadh had not taken Islamabad on board. But subsequent developments revealed that Saudi Arabia had been given a secret commitment regarding joining the alliance, about which the Foreign Office was not aware.”
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, speaking to journalists, expressed his surprise over Pakistan’s inclusion. Dawn News quoted another unnamed official, echoing a similar sentiment, said Pakistan was never consulted on the matter.
“We came to know about it through news reports,” an unnamed source in Pakistan’s foreign ministry told Karachi’s Express Tribune. Reuters quoted a Pakistani senator, Sehar Kamran, who also serves on a defense committee saying that she wasn’t even aware such an alliance existed.
It is not clear how Saudi Arabia reacted to Pakistan’s initial declaration regarding the country not having given its consent, but in all likelihood, the move did not go down well.
The Saudi alliance also caused confusion in Lebanon, where a Christian minister expressed outrage and the government rushed to assure Hezbollah that the new coalition will not target their fighters. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia, but is part of Lebanon’s national unity government.
The 34-nation alliance was announced by Mohammed bin Salman, the country's defence minister and deputy crown prince, on Tuesday. It includes, in addition to Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, the Palestinians, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. A notable exception is Saudi Arabia’s arch rival -- Iran.
"It is time that the Islamic world take a stand, and they have done that by creating a coalition to push back and confront the terrorists and those who promote their violent ideologies," said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi's foreign minister, speaking in Paris.
When asked whether the alliance would deploy troops on the ground, al-Jubeir replied, “nothing is off the table.”
This is obviously worrying for Pakistan as its relations with Saudi Arabia had dipped significantly over the question of Pakistan’s involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen. Pakistan found itself having 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 in April this year.
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.
The difficulty was evident as Pakistan could not afford to ignore Saudi Arabia’s request, given its close relations with the Saudi monarchy. 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.
A meme that was widely circulated puts a humourous spin on a very real reality of close ties and dependency:
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.
After months of tensions, things seemed to be improving between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as Pakistan's chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, visited Riyadh in November and held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman.The Saudi and Pakistani media welcomed the meetings as a thaw in the somewhat freeze.
Just weeks after the meetings, things are again up in the air as Pakistan has been vocal about that fact that it wasn’t consulted before being included -- a move that will not go down well with the Saudis, only to sign a different tune a day later.
The inclusion, however, faces Pakistan with the same predicament as dilly dallying over its involvement in Yemen and its relations with the Saudi monarchy.