It is in the nature of their bilateral relationship that should Saudi Arabia ask for help Pakistan has no option but to positively respond. Now it wants its traditional friends to share its burden of defending a legitimate Yemeni government. As expected, Pakistan is one such friend the kingdom has contacted without losing any time. And Islamabad’s response, as expected, was quick. Within hours of the Saudi request Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called a high-level meeting, attended, among others, by Army Chief General Raheel Sharif; and it was decided that Pakistan would send a delegation “to assess the situation”. According to Saudi Arabia’s official SPA news agency, Pakistan had by then ‘declared its willingness to participate in the Operation Storm of Resolve … based on a direct request from legitimate Yemeni government’. Others who have positively responded to the Saudi initiative include Turkey, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan, while the GCC countries are already on board. Since the Houthi rebels are believed to be the cat’s paw of Iran in the so-called proxy war with Saudi Arabia the emerging scenario in Yemen tends to attract the stigma of yet another showdown in the Middle East perennially divided along the Shia-Sunni fissures. But that is not the case; at least it does not appear to be, given the reality on the ground. The Houthis are from Zaidi Shias, unlike the Shias in Iran and elsewhere in the region. By codenaming its drive against the Houthis as ‘Operation al-Hazm Storm’ the Saudis have drawn a kind of parallelism with the ‘Operation Desert Storm’ the international coalition launched in 1991 to expel the forces of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
The conflict in the conflict in Yemen is for political influence, absolutely bereft of sectarianism – otherwise how come the United States that invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein – a dictator who drew strength from the Sunni sections of population – and created space for pro-Iran Shia leadership is now supportive of President Hadi who is backed by Sunni Gulf monarchies? Were this sect-based confrontation in Yemen the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh would have no role in it. What we have in Yemen is not a sectarian war; it portrays the belligerence now on display throughout the Middle East. It is, therefore, imperative for us in Pakistan not to see it in its misperceived sectarian perspective, all the more for the fear that given the tenuous sectarian situation in the country it can play into the hands of anti-state elements. Pakistan has close friendly relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, but as we try to strike a delicate balance in these relationships we got to be mindful that supreme national interest should have a clear precedence over anything else. And what constitutes supreme national interest must be decided by the government. One may hate to differ with Defence Minister Khawaja Asif when he says ‘Pakistan will not take any decision that will affect relations with Iran’. And there is no beef either with Senator Mushahid Hussain’s warning not to get sucked into the Middle East imbroglio. But can we say no to Saudi Arabia, with which Pakistan shares more commonality of spiritual, political and economic than any other country? And can we afford to be oblivious of the fact that some 22 lakh Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. And, above all, it is our international obligation to stand in defence of a legitimate government which is being pushed out of power by a foreign-backed clutch of rebels, who share among them historically nothing except appetite for power. Simply stated, the Houthis are rebels fighting to oust a legitimate government. Yes, Nawaz Sharif government must look into all aspects of the challenge before it, but it must show leadership and make a clear choice – because the situation is too dicey to brook ambivalence and any lack of clarity.