Operation Decisive Storm: when Riyadh calls on Islamabad

By Zoha Waseem:


With Iran-backed Houthi rebels advancing in Yemen, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has called upon its trusted and indebted partner Pakistan for support in so-called ‘Operation Decisive Storm’. There has been much speculation over the last few days as to what sort of support Islamabad is considering on providing Riyadh, with whom it has both a military partnership as well as an ideological relationship.

Reports from Saudi Arabia were quick to suggest that Pakistan may be joining the Riyadh-led coalition against Houthis. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khwaja Asif did all but deny this when he said, ‘Pakistan has pledged to defend Saudi Arabia in case of a threat to the territorial integrity and security of a friendly country’. Foreign Office spokesman Tasnim Aslam took the podium to ease tensions within the country, only to admit that such an option was still under examination. Following a high-profile meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, COAS Raheel Sharif, DG ISI Rizwan Akhtar, and Khwaja Asif, it was revealed that a ‘threat to Saudi territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan’. To add to the confusion, it was also reported that Pakistani and Saudi forces have been conducting joint military exercises near the Yemeni border. Furthermore, a graphic of key players involved in ‘Decisive Storm’ released by Saudi media, suggested that Pakistani warships and air support have already been provided to KSA.

A delegation inclusive of the Defence Minister, the National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz and representatives of the Pakistani army, arrived in Saudi Arabia on 31 March.  Last week, Khwaja Asif had backtracked on the gravity of the situation, stating that the government is still undecided and that the Parliament will be taken into confidence, all the while stressing Pakistan’s brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia. For its part, the Parliament appears to be leaning towards a ‘no boots’ stance.

At this stage, it is difficult to argue that Islamabad is leaning towards neutrality in the Saudi-Iran-Yemen nexus and it is being suggested that Pakistan may provide logistical support: training, weapons, and possibly aerial muscle, if it has not done so already. Given the history between both countries, neutrality seems highly unlikely. And it is because of this history that it is unsurprising that Saudis have called upon Pakistan to provide assistance.

There is a long-standing economic and military partnership between both states. Pakistan has been receiving aid from Saudi Arabia since as early as the 1960s, and the latter has supported Pakistan during its conflicts with India, as was seen most evidently during the 1971 war. In 1969, Pakistan Air Force fighters flew Saudi jets over South Yemen during the Battle of Sharoora. In the face of Ayatollah Khomeini’s growing power in Iran in 1979, Pakistani troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia (along with the US) provided funding for Pakistani madrassas and mosques to create and sponsor the Mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This led to the expansion of the Deobandi ideology and the rise of Wahabism in Pakistan, creating ideological ties between the two countries and mushrooming jihadi groups that Pakistan has utilised in Afghanistan and Kashmir. And in the 1990s, when Pakistan was slapped with economic sanctions following the development of its nuclear programme, it was Riyadh that provided barrels of oil to Islamabad free of cost.

In 2013, Pakistan and KSA entered into an unofficial nuclear agreement, with Saudis allegedly investing in Pakistan’s nuclear projects, and in return Islamabad pledging nuclear support to Riyadh should it be needed. Last year, a 17-member Saudi defence delegation travelled to Pakistan to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

Nawaz Sharif’s relationship with the Saudi royal family is even more personal. In 1999, when Sharif was sent into exile after General Pervez Musharraf’s coup, it was Saudi Arabia that provided him with shelter. In return, the PM is indebted to the Kingdom and has made frequent visits over the past few months. Sharif visited the late Saudi King Shah Abdullah when he was unwell, then again to attend his funeral, then on 5 March when he was personally received by King Salman at the Riyadh airport with a red carpet reception. It was during this last visit that talks of Saudi demands for military troops from Pakistan began surfacing, but had probably been brainstormed for some time.

That said, the Pakistani state appears to have very little clarity on the matter – or so it has been portrayed. Updates on the situation suggest that possibilities of supporting Saudis are being ‘examined’, ‘considered’, and ‘assessed’. This has created an atmosphere of panic and frustration within the country where the consensus – barring certain religious groups – is to stay out of Yemen. Social media is roaring with opinions and analyses with very little information at hand. Since last week, most analysts, columnists and political commentators – regardless of their stance on the Pakistani army and its operations – have advised against interfering in the Middle East. It is because of this confusion – will they, won’t they – that 500 Pakistanis in Yemen boarded the first flight back home, with over 170 awaiting their turn.

On the civilian side, political parties including Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Awami National Party (ANP) have all advised against deploying Pakistani troops in Yemen. Shia groups such as Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) and the Shia Ulema Council (SUC) took out separate rallies in Karachi against Saudi Arabia’s decision to attack Yemen. At the same time, the notorious Jamaat-ud-Dawa, led by Hafiz Saeed, staged demonstrations in Lahore and Islamabad, declaring their support for the Kingdom. According to one report, Ahle-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a Sunni political party with alleged links to the terrorist group Lashker-e-Jhangvi, has also backed Saudi Arabia’s operation in Yemen. On the other hand, Sunni political organisations such as Sunni Tehreek and Sunni Ittehad Council have called for peaceful resolutions.

More importantly, ISI’s media-arm, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), has been silent on the matter. Ultimately, it is the military that will be calling the shots and they will bear in mind that Pakistan and KSA are not just ‘brothers’; this is an intimate business relationship. While it has been suggested that within the Pakistani army there are talks of not getting involved in the Middle East because of Pakistan’s own internal and regional security dynamics, Pakistan could see an alliance with Saudi Arabia financially beneficial. It is unlikely that the Army will agree to providing assistance to KSA without a hefty package in return and this might be on military terms.

In 2015, KSA is expected to spend an estimated US$9.6 billion on importing defence equipment. According to IHS’ annual Global Defence Trade Report it has already surpassed India to become the world’s largest importer of defence equipment, as well as the USA’s top trading partner. KSA’s budget and defence spending has increased dramatically since the Arab Spring. In fact, the Middle East is reported to be the world’s fastest growing defence market with the US being ‘the biggest beneficiary of this market’. It could be that Pakistan is considering contributing to the defence market, for which Saudi Arabia would be a generous consumer and buyer.

But this is still early speculation. The only opinions expressed in agreement across the board concern the repercussions that interferences in the Middle East could have on Pakistan’s growing sectarian polarization. The sectarian conflicts of the Middle East have never been detached from Pakistan. Indeed, the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry, that has found a new front in Yemen, has been playing out in Islamabad’s neighbourhood for some decades now. The primary concern within the country is the exacerbation of Shia-Sunni violence. According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal database, 210 people were killed in 92 incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan in 2014, and over 140 have died this year (until 22 March 2015).

What is also being discussed now is the rise of sectarianism in urban areas like Karachi, where sectarian attacks claimed 100 lives last year alone. Karachi has been recognised as one of ‘four sectarian hotspots’ and the province of Sindh, which has a history Sufism and deep respect for Shias, is routinely subjected to sectarian violence. Earlier this year, on 30 January, over 60 Shias were killed in Shikarpur, six hours north of Karachi. With Karachi police and paramilitary forces already engaged in operations against ‘crime and militancy’, the city will suffer greatly from increasing sectarian divides.

For the time being, Pakistan does not appear to be in a position to send boots on the ground, both because of militancy at home – for which it needs troops and resources to continue counter-terrorism operations – and also because there can be no easy exit strategies following such a deployment. It further needs to keep its focus on the instability at its western border with Afghanistan, and hostility on the Line of Control. But events are still unfolding and Nawaz Sharif is likely to be under tremendous pressure to cooperate with the royal family. How this cooperation will be justified in the face of Pakistan’s internal security concerns remains to be seen.

Zoha Waseem is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, researching urban security and policing in Pakistan. She tweets at @zohawaseem.

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