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Saudi Arabia, Allies Pressure Pakistan Into Joining War In Yemen

Hafiz Saeed, head Jamat ud Dawa during a rally to support Saudi Arabia in its ongoing military campaign in Yemen in Islamabad on April 9.
Hafiz Saeed, head Jamat ud Dawa during a rally to support Saudi Arabia in its ongoing military campaign in Yemen in Islamabad on April 9.

Days after the Pakistani Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution to remain neutral in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies are mounting pressure on the country to join their military campaign in Yemen.

Islamabad has resisted joining the fighting in Yemen, which is viewed as destabilizing the Gulf and the wider Middle East. The conflict could escalate into a regional war pitting the Riyadh-led Sunni Arab states against Iran's Shi'ite clerical regime, which is suspected to be the main backer of Yemen's Houthi fighters.

After arriving in Islamabad late on April 12, Saudi Arabia's religious affairs minister, Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammad al-Sheikh, is urging Pakistani leaders to support his nation.

While declaring the April 10 parliament resolution as Pakistan's "internal matter," he said Riyadh expects "a lot of good from" its close historic ties with Islamabad.

His senior adviser Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Ammar, however, was more explicit and rejected Islamabad's neutrality and its offer to mediate in the Yemen conflict.

"If Pakistan doesn’t take a position, that means they are just a bystander," the Wall Street Journal quoted him as telling a Pakistani television news channel. "We are coalition forces to restore legitimacy. If they return to legitimacy, the issue is over. It is not right to abandon legitimacy. That's not reconciliation. That amounts to helping the unjust."

Gulf Arab nations have considerable political influence and financial clout to coerce Islamabad into joining their fight. For nearly four decades, the oil-rich countries have been a top destination for Pakistani migrants whose estimated $15 billion annual remittances keep the Pakistani economy afloat.

Riyadh and allies have also been Islamabad's major foreign donors and close defense allies, offering Pakistan lucrative military contracts. They collectively backed the Pakistan-based anti-Soviet Afghan Islamist guerillas in the 1980s and bankrolled Afghanistan's Taliban regime in the 1990. Militant factions, often working as Islamabad's proxies, still receive donations and funding from private donors in the Gulf.

Pakistani elites have also invested billions in the Gulf region, where some cities serve as safe havens during troubling times at home. Saudi Arabia sheltered current Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for years after he was ousted in a military coup in 1999.

Najam Sethi, a Pakistani journalist, says Riyadh is not impressed by the parliamentary resolution and is pressing Pakistan to send troops to protect it at a time when it sees itself under threat after a Houthi attack killed three of its soldiers on April 11.

"With the next couple days, Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif have to make some important decisions," he told Pakistan’s Geo News channel on April 12. "The chances are that they will decide, 'we are sending troops for the defense of Saudi Arabia.'"

Islamabad, however, appears for the time being to have decided to stay out of the fray.

After Sharif held extensive consultations with the country's top leaders on April 13, Islamabad decided to continue following the parliamentary resolution.

"The resolution passed by parliament on April 10 strengthens the hands of the government for playing a positive and constructive role," Sharif said in a televised address after the meetings.

He reiterated that Pakistani troops will only be sent to Saudi Arabia should there be any "violation of Saudi territorial sovereignty or a threat to the two holy mosques." Saudi Arabia is home to two of Islam's holiest sites, the Sacred Mosque in the city of Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

Riyadh has been pressing Islamabad to join its campaign against the Shi'ite Houthi fighters since it began on March 25. Saudi Arabia formally asked Pakistan to send soldiers, ships and aircraft for the war.

Islamabad, however, pushed for diplomatic efforts to end the crisis and held talks with Turkish and Iranian officials last week.

Pakistani Sunni Islamist political parties and militant groups are already pushing Islamabad to "announce categorical" support for Saudi Arabia and "dispatch troops and weapons to the brotherly country."

Their protests and calls are expected to get louder as the Saudi-led campaign turns into a stalemate.

Meanwhile, the largely state-controlled press in the Gulf countries continued to criticize Islamabad.

"The Pakistani stance that was adopted through the parliament’s decision to remain neutral has dropped the blackmail masks about protecting sacred Islamic sites and sharing a common destiny with Muslim countries," Kuwaiti daily "Al Seyassah" said, according to the English-language daily "Gulf News," which translated its editorial from Arabic.

"The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries do not need Pakistan," the editorial noted. "In fact, Pakistan needs them in various areas. The GCC can defend its security, particularly following the alliance with other countries such as Jordan and Egypt."