Riyalpolitik – Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan

There are compelling reasons for Pakistan to participate in Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen.

Yemen is in the throes of yet another iteration of violence and instability. Since 2004, the group Ansar Allah, popularly referred to as the Houthis, has waged an insurgency against the Yemeni government, demanding more autonomy in the northern governorate of Saada. The Houthis belong to the Zaidiyya or “Fiver” sect of Shia Islam, but unlike other Shias, follow the tradition of Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence.


In March 2015, the Yemeni capital Sanaa was overrun by Houthi insurgents, following which the Yemeni government resigned. Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, whom the Saudis had backed and bankrolled since 2011, fled Yemen for the Kingdom as violence escalated.  The Saudis, who were attempting to negotiate with the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Abdullah Saleh, then decided that military action was essential to dislodge and degrade the insurgency.  The response – Operation Decisive Storm – launched on March 27, 2015, is but the latest instance of Saudi Arabia’s history of intervention in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s desire to dominate its southern neighbor can be traced back to the very foundation of the Kingdom. In 1934, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, waged war on the Mutawakeliite Kingdom of Yemen over the precariously-placed principality of Asir that straddles both countries. Ibn Saud’s Wahhabi tribesmen marched towards Sanaa, besieging much of the Yemeni coast and the town of al-Hudaida, where they threatened the safety of the city’s Indian merchant families.  Hostilities came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Taif, following which Saudi Arabia relinquished control over territory captured during the invasion.

After the Second World War, the territory of historic Yemen came to be dominated by fault lines that have continued to be the source of internal discord and external conflicts.  In the north, Ottoman power waned as the Zaidiyya ad-Din dynasty consolidated power. Southern Yemen remained a British protectorate in much the same way that the states of Trucial Oman were.

Post-World War Yemen quickly become a proxy for regional rivalries pitting monarchial Saudi Arabia and Jordan against socialist Arab states (primarily Egypt).  A coup d’état in 1962 resulted in Imam Muhammad al-Badr being deposed in northern Yemen, thus bringing to end the line of imams who had ruled the Mutawakeliite Kingdom of Yemen since 1918.  After a protracted civil war that lasted nearly a decade and claimed almost 200,000 lives, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was established in the areas formerly under the control of the imams. The areas under the protection of Great Britain would eventually come to form the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

Hopes for a reunification of Yemen were hampered partly as a result of differences between the YAR and the PDRY, but also because of Saudi Arabia’s opposition.  Veteran journalist Peter Wilson writes in his book Saudi Arabia: The Coming Storm: “…Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni policy was based on stymieing unification attempts between the two Yemens. Riyadh gave generous amounts of foreign aid to North Yemen, including free hospitals, subsidized food, and large credits.  The Kingdom also regularly paid bribes to subvert the union…”

When YAR claimed that the PDRY had launched an attack across its borders in 1978, the Saudis financed the supply of American weapons to North Yemen and placed its own forces on alert.  Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Yemen also became a source of completion between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Persian Gulf War marked a new low in relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. When the north sent 2,000 troops to the aid of Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia responded by deporting over a million Yemeni works from Saudi Arabia and brought to bear significant financial pressure on YAR.

After unification in 1990, a move the Saudis opposed, Yemen was victim to Saudi military incursions across the largely-undefined border, particularly near the strategically-located town of Jizan. In the 1994 civil war between the north and the south, Saudi Arabia supported the south since its objective of seceding from the union was consistent with Riyadh’s own interests.

The 1995 Saudi-Yemeni Memorandum of Understanding called for both sides to desist from interfering in the internal affairs of the other; however, the security vacuum in much of Yemen combined with Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic ambitions resulted in unilateral military incursions in Yemen.  With the nascent state not being able to exercise control over much of its territory, Yemen fell prey to terror groups like al-Qaeda in the 1990s.  The bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden in 2000 was a precursor to future al-Qaeda attacks against the U.S. and U.S. interests.  Since 2002, the U.S. has attempted to target al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, with mixed results.  The Saudis with the Americans targeted the Houthis as part of Operation Scorched Earth in 2009 and, in concert with the Yemeni government, targeted the group again in 2010.

Today, Sanaa’s writ in Yemen is severely diminished.  Much of Yemen is a patchwork of insurgencies, tribal conflicts and terrorist havens.  The Houthis and Saleh loyalists have overrun Sanaa and the western provinces.  The Houthis also maintain a stronghold in Saada, with which there is a large, undemarcated border with Saudi Arabia as a result of the 1934 Treaty of Taif.  The Central Government is fighting to retain control of Aden and the southwestern governorates.  Al-Qaeda’s affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Asia Pacific, (AQAP) controls large swathes of erstwhile PDRY territory, particularly in Hadhramauth (the birthplace of Osama bin Laden).

Pakistan’s Dilemma
Saudi Arabia’s call-to-arms against the Houthi insurgency included Egypt (with which it ironically fought a protracted proxy war in Yemen) and other Arab states: the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. The Saudis have also been particularly eager to enlist the services of Pakistan, which has a large military and is a significant recipient of Saudi monetary patronage.

There are compelling reasons for Pakistan to participate in Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif owes much to Saudi Arabia. It was only after strong representations from King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to Pakistan’s dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2000 that Nawaz Sharif’s life sentence was commuted to life in exile in Saudi Arabia. Nawaz Sharif enjoyed the hospitality of the Kingdom for seven years before he was allowed, yet again at the urging of the Saudi royal family, to return to Pakistan and contest the 2008 general elections.

The Saudis have an affinity for Mr Sharif; Saudi Arabia’s longstanding foreign minister Saud bin Faisal al-Saud once described him as one who could “play an important role in stabilising Pakistan” and as “a leader who can speak across party lines, even to religious extremists who are not usually open to dialog.”

The Pakistani military too has reasons to support a Saudi campaign in Yemen. For one, the military sees itself as being responsible for the defence of not only Pakistan’s physical borders, but also the ideological frontiers of Islam. It is this notion of Pakistan being the vanguard of Islam that has lent itself to the Pakistani military’s many forays in the Middle East. The Saudis and other Arab states have historically welcomed Pakistan’s participation and support in their campaigns. Pakistan’s role in the defense of the Middle East was also encouraged by the US and the UK as early as the 1950s.

The Pakistani military began providing military assistance in various capacities to Arab states in the 1960s. Pakistani army officers assisted Oman during the Dhofar rebellion between 1962 and 1976. An assassination attempt in 1966 on the life of then-Sultan of Oman, Taimur bin Said, resulted in one Pakistani officer being severely wounded and another succumbing to his injuries a few days later.  During the Jordanian civil war (1967-1970), Zia ul-Haq, then a brigadier overseeing a training commission, took command of Jordan’s 2nd Division and played a key role in the offensive that led to the deaths of over 25,000 Palestinians in what is referred to as Black September. It is a matter of sad irony that Pakistan today seeks to eagerly project itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

Although the Pakistani military did not officially intervene in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, at least one officer of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has described in some detail his role in flying MiG-21s on behalf of the Syrians as part of the air battle with Israel. The scholar William Quandt notes in his book “Saudi Arabia in the 1980s” that the Saudis agreed to pay Pakistan as much as $1 billion annually in exchange for a “large number of Pakistani ground forces and advisors to be stationed primarily in the South Yemen border area,” an offer that bears similarity with Riyadh’s $1.5 billion grant to Pakistan in 2014.

As of 1986, Pakistan is said to have had “one division…, two armored and two artillery brigades….and several naval and air force personnel in Saudi Arabia.” The Pakistani military also deployed troops in defensive positions to protect Gulf Arab states during the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War.

The Pakistanis have also chosen more creative approaches to participate in conflicts without the direct, sanctioned participation of their military personnel. For example, Lt Gen Javed Nasir, who served as the chief of Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from 1992-1993, is wanted by the Hague Tribunal for supplying arms to Bosnian Muslims during their conflict with the Serbian army. It is not surprising, therefore, that militants from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which enjoys the patronage of the Pakistani military, actively participated in the Bosnian War.

In April 2015, the Ahl-e-Hadith militant group Jamaat ud-Dawah (Lashkar-e-Taiba’s parent organisation) held rallies to express solidarity with Saudi Arabia and praised the government and army for pledging support to Riyadh’s campaign against Yemen. Since the 2000s, the Ahl-e-Hadith movement has received significantly more funding from Saudi Arabia than any of its competitors, so it is only natural that the JuD would stand in support of its chief benefactor.

Between Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, Pakistan will need to strike a delicate balance. Saudi Arabia is an important donor and enjoys close ties with the Pakistani military and government. Iran, on the other hand is a neighbour with which Pakistan has a complicated relationship. Pakistan cannot simply dismiss Saudi Arabia’s calls for assistance, but neither can it afford to engage in Yemen in ways that will further deteriorate its relationship with Iran.

The Pakistani army is preoccupied with insurgencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North Waziristan. Since 2004, Pakistan is also engaged in countering another insurgency in Balochistan, which borders Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Tensions between Iran and Pakistan flared in 2014 over border skirmishes that resulted in the death of one Pakistani Frontier Corps soldier.

So what will Pakistan do? In a statement following his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Sharif said the two countries had “agreed to extend all possible support for the defence of Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Read between the lines, the statement indicates that Pakistan is unwilling to commit troops – particularly ground troops –   to military operations targeting Houthi positions in Saada or elsewhere in Yemen.

A more likely scenario will involve Pakistani military advisors providing assistance and input to their Saudi counterparts. Pakistan may also deploy contingents of the PAF or Pakistan Navy to assist in operations against the Houthis. The Pakistan Navy already maintains a presence in the Gulf of Aden through its involvement in anti-piracy operations as part of the Combined Task Force 150 (CFT-150) architecture.

Lastly, Pakistan may also participate in the offensive in a more covert manner in an officially or semi-officially sanctioned but not disclosed capacity through organisations like the Bahria Foundation and the Fauji Foundation. These organisations recruit retired Pakistani military and police personnel for “overseas deployment” and appear to have provided assistance to the Gulf regimes in the past.

Photo: Wikipedia