Stand up for a friend

Friends and allies are expected to jump in the fray when help is sought, but this newfound neutrality has not gone down too well with the GCC, which expects Islamabad to be on its side during an offensive against an illegal occupation in Yemen.



It was not an easy choice for Pakistan to say ‘no’ to Saudi Arabia, its long-time friend and partner. The partnership between the two countries goes back to decades and was strengthened during the then Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now, Riyadh is involved in a campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen and was looking to Islamabad for troops, ships and aircraft to finish the job it had begun with other Gulf States.

Islamabad has reiterated that it would step if the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia is threatened by the Houthis during the conflict in Yemen, but Parliament overwhelmingly voted to stay out of the campaign in Yemen, a sign of neutrality, which was met with condemnation from the UAE.

Friends and allies are expected to jump in the fray when help is sought, but this newfound neutrality has not gone down too well with the GCC, which expects Islamabad to be on its side during an offensive against an illegal occupation in Yemen.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash, reacting to the Pakistani vote, said “the moment of truth distinguishes between the real ally and the ally of media and statements”. Pakistan is being as viewed as appeasing both sides in an hour of crisis. He wanted Islamabad to keep off the ambiguity and said Tehran seems to be more important to Pakistan than trusted friends from the GCC.

The primary reason that compelled Pakistan’s legislators to stay away from actively participating in the war against the Houthis is because of sectarianism. Pakistan with a heterogeneous sectarian population fears a backlash at home, if its troops join the fight.

Lawmakers from across the board were of the consensus that Pakistan is itself at war with dreaded militants, and the Saudi-Yemeni deployment could distract it from a do-or-die battle at home. Last but the least, the joint session of parliament and the subsequent strategy to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia was mismanaged by the government, and there was an impression that Pakistan had already committed troops and this debate on the floor of the house was a mere formality.

That was witnessed as the Foreign Office-sponsored draft resolution, which was reportedly loaded with technicalities and in favour of Saudi Arabia, was rejected by the opposition parties, and a new consensus had to be evolved by inserting in the word ‘neutral’ in the conflict. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s stopover in Islamabad in which he met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Raheel Sharif apparently played a major role in forcing Pakistan to tread a middle path.

The GCC, however, calls for action from Pakistan as it battles to drive out the Houthis, an Iranian proxy, who are moving fast and capturing large parts of Yemen. Iran is encircling the Gulf and is threatening the security of these states. Such a danger to the entire region should be viewed as larger threat to Pakistan’s interests. Riyadh and other Gulf states have doled out $3 billion to shore up Pakistan’s economy. It will need more assistance to get out of the woods and improve the quality of life of its people. Parliament is clear the country cannot afford more conflict, but a friend’s enemy should be viewed as an enemy by Islamabad.

The security of the Gulf is in Pakistan’s interests and diplomatic efforts must be supported for a peaceful solution to the crisis. Iran is the aggressor in this situation and its meddling in the affairs of countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is not acceptable to the GCC.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries expect action from Pakistan and not neutrality. It must walk the talk and rebuild trust and bridges with old friends and not stay on the sidelines.


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