A recently released report by Middle Eastern Eye, citing an anonymous source, claimed that Pakistan was planning to deploy a brigade of combat troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom’s southern border from the Houthi militias in Yemen. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition of predominantly Sunni Muslim states has been pounding Yemen since 2015 in a bid to restore the latter’s Riyadh-allied government back to power. The Houthi rebels, an Iran-supported militia from northern Yemen, are leading Yemen’s minority Shia political groups and have resorted to guerrilla warfare to achieve their goals.
Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Asif, has denied reports about Pakistani military deployment in Saudi Arabia. However, on March 15, Asif, while giving an interview to a local channel, disclosed that discussions between Islamabad and Riyadh were underway in this regard: “The final call to send troops to Saudi Arabia had not been taken yet, however, a mutual objective was to fight terrorism,” said the minister.
It’s important to note that the report also claims that Pakistan’s military brigade will remain “inside” the Kingdom’s borders and “will not be used beyond Saudi borders.” Besides, the military in Pakistan, which is widely believed to be the ultimate determinant of security and foreign policy, has not denied the report yet.
Certainly, if true, Pakistan’s decision to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia may come as a surprise because the country, over the last two years, has been trying to move away from its traditional approach of supporting Saudi Arabia at the expense of its relations with Iran. Ties between Islamabad and Riyadh have deepened over the past four decades with their mutually beneficial alliance trumping Iran’s regional interests. Among other things, this also includes the institutionalization of anti-Shia militancy in Pakistan, which has claimed thousands of lives in the country. Up until two years ago, a majority of terror incidents in Pakistan were dominated by sectarian violence. However, since the formation of the National Action Plan (NAP), the country’s 20 point counterterrorism strategy, sectarian violence in Pakistan seems to have declined.
The latest media reports also come in the wake of Islamabad’s earlier policy decision of turning down Riyadh’s demands of deploying the Pakistani troops to Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels. While last year Pakistan reluctantly joined a Saudi Arabia-led 34-nation coalition against terrorism, the political leadership in Pakistan reaffirmed that Islamabad would not support any move that further destabilizes Syria or strains its bilateral relations with Iran.
While discussions regarding Pakistan’s decision to send troops to the Kingdom do not appear on the surface to be completely neutral, the fact that Islamabad is involved in such discussions with Riyadh should be taken as an extension of the country’s earlier efforts seeking detachment between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The cost-benefit assessment of Pakistan newly adopted foreign policy approach, which involves walking a tightrope between the effort to maintain the country’s old and valued relations with the Kingdom while reaching out to Tehran by publicly appeasing its interests, shows that Islamabad is not going to choose one country over the other any longer.
In a way, Pakistan has taken a leaf or two out of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s playbook where choosing between the two arch-rivals is not mandatory anymore. While Pakistan may be considering deploying troops to Saudi Arabia, the country’s leadership has reached out to Yemen and Iran in order to alleviate their concerns, which in the past had not been the case.
Furthermore, last week, the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, traveled to Pakistan to participate in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO)’s summit in Islamabad. Earlier this week, the chief of Pakistan’s military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, while meeting the Iranian ambassador, hinted at enhancing “Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation.”
Reportedly, two parliamentary committees from Iran and Pakistan are expected to jointly visit Chabahar and Gwadar ports in an effort to highlight that both countries are not trying to undermine each other’s interests with the development of these ports. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s advisor to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, in a statement has said that “Pakistan supports Yemen’s territorial integrity and struggle for peace.” Additionally, the government in Pakistan has pledged to provide $1 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to Yemen.
The following considerations may help provide a better understanding of this reported development. Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Pakistan’s historic rival India has deepened in recent years, with both countries expected to set up manufacturing facilities for the joint production of defense hardware. This is something that Pakistan should be watching closely, but it is unlikely to express its reservations. Doing so would mean nothing more than a rebuke or embarrassment for Islamabad as Riyadh is not likely to pay heed to any of Pakistan’s concerns going forward.
Additionally, with the development of Iran’s India-backed Chabahar port, Tehran is well-positioned to further enhance its geopolitical significance, which is likely to cause annoyance for Pakistan. Here, too, Islamabad would prefer to remain silent, for Tehran has never snubbed Pakistan from growing economic interdependence between the two countries. In fact, on the contrary, it is Pakistan that has been reluctant to move forward in developing close relations with Iran: one example is the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which has largely been delayed due to Islamabad’s disinclination rather than Tehran’s.
For Islamabad, this is a pragmatic position is understood in the context of its own growing economic independence due to the recent Chinese investments in the country. Certainly, on Pakistan’s part, it’s a response to rapidly changing economic, geopolitical, and security landscape that demands Islamabad’s extensive cooperation with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, this also highlights that unlike in the past, Islamabad is not going to choose between Tehran and Riyadh or favor one country over the other. In a way, Pakistan is likely to exercise its neutrality by engaging both countries interests similarly, which reflects a clear break from the county’s previous policies.
Previously Pakistan didn’t have necessary economic wherewithal to offend its long-time ally, Saudi Arabia. However, with new economic opportunities on the horizon, Pakistan has found its much needed space to maneuver between Tehran and Riyadh. Clearly, Pakistan realizes that Iran’s gas supplies, instead of the Kingdom’s oil, will shape the course of the country’s energy future.
Moreover, Beijing’s expanding financial and diplomatic engagement with Iran can be seen as an added pressure on Pakistan that might have forced the country into reconsidering its traditional policy vis-à-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. Beijing’s own rapidly growing energy needs require a close working relationship with Iran, which possesses the world’s second largest gas reserves. Moreover, China is considering linking Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline to its One Belt, One Road series of infrastructure projects through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which would give Beijing direct access to Tehran’s gas supplies.
Contrary to some assumptions that are viewing Pakistan’s deployment of its military to Saudi Arabia as a mere continuation of the country’s old traditional policy of supporting the Kingdom, the recently reported developments present a clear indication that Islamabad may have changed its policy thinking toward Saudi Arabia by keeping it close while making sure that the country doesn’t push away Iran, which in the long run can undermine Islamabad’s economic and security interests.