Pakistan has politely declined Saudi Arabia’s request to join the Arab coalition fighting its current military operation to restore the deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After days of discussion in the media and parliament, a joint session of parliament passed a resolution on April 10 saying that Pakistan “should maintain neutrality in the conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis.” It was suggested that this is not a war for the integrity of Saudi Arabia, but an expansionist power grab by them to reinstate their chosen leader.
The joint session was summoned after the Saudi government approached Islamabad for Pakistani warplanes, warships and soldiers to assist in the conflict and join the Saudi-led military coalition that began conducting air strikes last month against Houthi forces in Yemen. According to media reports the Saudis wanted a 3-4 year deployment of a full corps of the Army under their command.
The parliament resolution stated that the crisis in Yemen could “plunge the region into turmoil.” Taking Iran in the equation, it called upon the warring factions in Yemen to resolve their differences “peacefully and through dialogue” and urged the government to initiate steps to move the UN Security Council and the Organization of Islamic Conference to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. The resolution also emphasized that while the war in Yemen was not sectarian in nature, it had the potential of turning into a sectarian conflict and thereby having a critical fallout in the region, including within Pakistan.
The rejection of the Saudi request by Pakistan astonished many because of their close economic-military ties. A 2008 Brookings report provides an insight into the close military relationship with the Saudis:
“Pakistan has received more aid from Saudi Arabia than any country outside the Arab world since the 1960s. For example, in May 1998 when Pakistan was deciding whether to respond to India’s test of five nuclear weapons, the Saudis promised 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help the Pakistanis cope with the economic sanctions that might be triggered by a counter test. The Saudi oil commitment was a key to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to proceed with testing. It cushioned the subsequent U.S. and EU sanctions on Pakistan considerably.
“In turn, Pakistan has provided military aid and expertise to the kingdom for decades. It began with help to the Royal Saudi Air Force to build and pilot its first jet fighters in the 1960s. Pakistani Air Force pilots flew RSAF Lightnings that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border in 1969. In the 1970s and 1980s up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the kingdom, some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border. The close ties continue between the militaries today.
“Shortly after Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan visited Pakistan and toured its nuclear and missile facilities outside Islamabad. At the time, U.S. officials expressed concern that the Pakistanis might be providing a nuclear weapon to the Saudis. Saudi connections with Pakistan’s nuclear program go back almost as far. Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto sought financial help for the program from Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s, according to some accounts. Then King Faisal of Saudi Arabia provided some money in return for a promise that Pakistan’s nuclear program would provide a security umbrella for the kingdom. Bhutto repaid the favor by renaming a city in the King’s honor, Faisalabad.”
But Islamabad and Riyadh’s ties run far deeper than that. Most famously, the Saudis funneled aid and money through Pakistan for the CIA’s covert operation against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The so-called American Jihad in Afghanistan gave birth to the Taliban and the so-called al-Qaeda.
More recently in February 2014, Saudi Arabia provided $1.5 billion to boost the Pakistani rupee. But this favor was not without strings. It brought a 180-degree shift in Pakistan’s policy towards the war in Syria, which had previously been one of neutrality.
The Shia Factor
However, the Yemeni conflict created a dilemma for Pakistan when Saudi Arabia asked for sending only Sunni soldiers and not Shias. This was seen as an attempt to divide the armed forces along religious grounds.
Pakistan’s 190 million inhabitants include around 26 million Shiites, giving it the largest population of the minority Muslim sect’s adherents after Iran. Pakistan has officially tried to remain on the sidelines of the regular Shiite-Sunni flare-ups in the Middle East over the last few decades.
Pakistan is already witnessing unprecedented levels of sectarian violence, with more than 2,000 killed since 2008. Given Pakistan’s internal sectarian terrorism, Pakistan cannot afford to get embroiled in any Shia-Sunni conflict in the Gulf and the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court of Pakistan was urged to take suo moto action to restrain the Government against becoming an ally of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition. It was argued that the Saudi-Yemeni conflict has serious sectarian connotations. Pakistan is already suffering from this curse. Its participation in the Saudi-Yemen war would not only exacerbate the domestic conflict but also drive an inviolable wedge between Pakistan and its neighbor Iran.
It may be recalled that during the 1970s a large contingent of Pakistan army was stationed in Saudi Arabia. After the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia reportedly asked Pakistan to send only Sunni soldiers and not Shia ones. The Government of General Ziaul Haq withdrew the Pakistani troops on the plea that the Saudi request would create division since there was no distinction of Shia and Sunni in the army. The latest Saudi request was politely declined by Islamabad on the same plea.
A closer look at the nature of the civil war in Yemen indicates that it is not completely sectarian as is being projected by the media. Other factors including the presence of conflicting groups like Zaidi Shia rebels called Houthis, separatists from South Yemen and political loyalists are equally responsible for the ongoing civil war that actually started in 2011 when government loyalists and opposition tribesmen clashed during protests against the autocratic rule of US proxy President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As a matter of fact the tribal enmities in Yemen are being given a sectarian edge by outside powers.
Tellingly, the Houthis fought six wars with Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out of the presidency in 2012. Hadi, his vice president, took over and largely ignored the Houthis.
Apparently the Saudis have launched an ill-conceived campaign that has plenty of precedents from the recent past. Air campaigns against militia forces on the ground have not yielded substantial results. The Americans tried it in Libya and we can see now what they created. They tried it in Kosovo, but ultimately had to settle for an agreement the terms of which were practically identical to the terms offered by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic before the start of the campaign.
The Saudis don’t have the military capability to sustain this type of a campaign for very long, with no clear exit strategy either. It would be a folly of tremendous proportions for Pakistan to join in. Going in with overwhelming force, and committing to a large state-making function has been tried by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hasn’t worked. Yemen is a potential quagmire that could rival Afghanistan.
As Seumas Milne of the Guardian says, in reality Iran’s backing for the homegrown Houthis seems to be modest, and their Zaidi strand of Islam is a sort of halfway house between Sunni and Shia. Hadi’s term as transitional president expired last year, and he resigned in January before fleeing the country after the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital Sana’a.
A clear danger of the Saudi attack on Yemen is that it may ignite a wider conflagration, intensifying the sectarian schism across the region and potentially bring Saudi Arabia and Iran into a direct conflict.
US-Saudi geopolitics in Yemen
Yemen is a growing reminder of just how important the strategic U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia really is, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“It is one thing to talk about the war against ISIS, and quite another to realize that U.S. strategic interests require a broad level of stability in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and one that is dependent on Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner.”
While the House of Saud has long considered Yemen a subordinate province of some sort and as a part of Riyadh’s sphere of influence, the US wants to make sure that it could control the Bab Al-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, and the Socotra Islands, as argued by Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, a Canada-based geopolitical analyst. The Bab Al-Mandeb is an important strategic chokepoint for international maritime trade and energy shipments that connects the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea. It is just as important as the Suez Canal for the maritime shipping lanes and trade between Africa, Asia and Europe.
Added to the geopolitical importance of Yemen in overseeing the strategic maritime corridors is its military’s missile arsenal. Yemen’s missiles could hit any ships in the Gulf of Aden or Bab Al-Mandeb. In this regard, the Saudi attack on Yemen’s strategic missile depots serves both US and Israeli interests. The aim is not only to prevent them from being used to retaliate against exertions of Saudi military force, but to also prevent them from being available to a Yemeni government aligned to either Iran, Russia or China.
According to Anthony Cordesman, Yemen does not match the strategic importance of the Gulf, but it is still of great strategic importance to the stability of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula. It is critical to note that far more is involved than energy: the cost and security of every cargo that goes through the Suez canal, the security of U.S. and other allied combat ships moving through the canal, the economic stability of Egypt, and the security of Saudi Arabia’s key port at Jeddah and major petroleum export facility outside the Gulf. The Energy Information Administration described the significant energy impact of this chokepoint thus:
-The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED (Suez-Mediterranean) Pipeline also pass through Bab el-Mandeb.
-An estimated 3.8 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed through this waterway in 2013 toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 2.9 million bbl/d in 2009. Oil shipped through the strait decreased by almost one-third in 2009 because of the global economic downturn and the decline in northbound oil shipments to Europe. Northbound oil shipments increased through Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2013, and more than half of the traffic, about 2.1 million bbl/d, moved northbound to the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline.
-The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa, adding to transit time and cost. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.
Any hostile air or sea presence in Yemen could threaten the entire traffic through the Suez Canal, as well as a daily flow of oil and petroleum products that the EIA estimates increased from 2.9 mmb/d in 2009 to 3.8 mmb/d in 2013. Such a threat also can be largely covert or indirect. Libya demonstrated this under Qaddafi when he had a cargo ship drop mines in the Red Sea.
The archipelago of Socotra
Maritime trade from East and Southern Africa to Western Europe also transits within proximity of the Yemeni archipelago of Socotra (Suqutra), through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Socotra in the Indian Ocean is located some 80 kilometers off the Horn of Africa and 380 km south of the Yemeni coastline. A military base in Socotra could be used to oversee the movement of vessels including warships in an out of the Gulf of Aden.
The Socotra archipelago is part of the Great Game opposing Russia and America. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a military presence in Socotra, which at the time was part of South Yemen. (Prof Michel Chossudovsky; Global Research) In 2009, the Russians entered into renewed discussions with the Yemeni government regarding the establishment of a naval base on Socotra island.
In January, 2010, the then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and General David Petraeus, Commander of the US Central Command met for high level discussions behind closed doors. Several reports confirmed that the Saleh-Petraeus meetings were intent upon redefining US military involvement in Yemen including the establishment of a full-fledged military base on the island of Socotra. The Iranian news agency Fars reported that president Ali Abdullah Saleh had “surrendered Socotra for Americans who would set up a military base.” Following the Petraeus-Saleh meeting, a Russian Navy communiqué “confirmed that Russia did not give up its plans to have bases for its ships on Socotra Island.”
Foreign Policy in Focus columnist Conn Hallinan believes that the coalition that Riyadh has assembled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war has more in common with 19th century Europe than 21st century Middle East. The 22-member Arab League came together at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, recently to draw up its plan to attack the Houthi forces currently holding Yemen’s capital. And the meeting bore an uncanny resemblance to a similar gathering of monarchies at Vienna in 1814.
The leading voice at the Egyptian resort was the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. His historical counterpart was Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister who designed the “Concert of Europe” to ensure that no revolution would ever again threaten the monarchs who dominated the continent. More than 200 years divides those gatherings, but their goals were much the same: to safeguard a small and powerful elite’s dominion over a vast area.
Writing in the Independent newspaper Patrick Cockburn argues that foreign states that go to war in Yemen usually come to regret it. In practice, a decisive outcome is the least likely prospect for Yemen, just as it has long been in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In short, to borrow from former World Bank official Peter Koenig, “domination of Yemen is an important step on the Zionist-Anglo-Saxon Empire’s path towards world hegemony. Like Ukraine, Yemen is just another square on the geopolitical chess board which the exceptional nation aims to dominate.”