Pakistan’s security calculations in the Gulf
Dubai - The strategic relationship between Pakistan and the Arab Gulf states is indeed special and has proven its worth when tested.
When the going gets tough, Pakistan is regarded as perhaps the closest security partner for the Arab Gulf. Underpinning this is both a deep cultural affinity and a sense of shared destinies as Sunni Muslims. Sometimes criticised for being transactional, Pakistan-Arab Gulf relations are genuinely rooted at a strategic level. In the security realm, Pakistan as a state and society has always played a critical role in Arab Gulf security.
When the Grand Mosque in Mecca was besieged in 1979, it was to the Pakistanis that Saudi Arabia turned for assistance — and Pakistan delivered. During the first Gulf war, the Saudi border was manned almost entirely by soldiers from two battalions that Pakistan deployed. Pakistani pilots flew Syrian and Jordanian aircraft in the six-day war and Yom Kippur war, shooting down Israeli aircraft. Most recently, retired Pakistani officers were reportedly dispatched to Bahrain to help quell unrest.
In short, Pakistan has always stood by Arabs, demonstrating the traits of an elder brother or stronger cousin — whatever seems appropriate.
But in Yemen, things did not go as smoothly. Traditionally, Pakistan and its Arab Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, conduct business out of the public glare: Engagement happens at the highest levels and is rarely subject to political approval.
But as the Saudi-led coalition launched operations in Yemen and Arab media announced Pakistan was to lead a ground offensive together with Egypt, the official word from Islamabad came out quickly — no such thing was going to happen. A flurry of high-level exchanges between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia ensued, searching for a solution. But Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had already taken the issue to parliament where the question of deployment was comprehensively shot down. Pakistan reiterated its readiness to defend Saudi borders and the sacred sites in Mecca and Medina — but no boots in Yemen. Taking the issue to parliament though was unexpected and provided a public forum for Pakistani politicians to criticise Saudi Arabia.
In fairness, that was not the intention of Sharif, who owes much to the Saudis for hosting him after he was ousted and exiled by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. But the damage was already done. The manner in which Sharif managed the issue may not necessarily have been approved by the army, but the bottom line was that the view of the Pakistani establishment prevailed.
Pakistan is deeply engaged on five fronts: it is executing a massive military operation against the Pakistani Taliban in its north west, dealing with an unstable Afghanistan following US withdrawal, contending with a Hindu-nationalist government in India known for its anti- Pakistan and anti-Muslim views, fighting insurgents in Baluchistan province, and cleaning up Karachi (Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub) from terrorist sleeper cells and organised-crime groups controlled by political and religious outfits.
Overstretch is thus a genuine concern for Pakistan. Apart from the fact that Yemen is not considered a strategic interest for Pakistan, there was also no exit strategy for a ground operation in Yemen. A country like Pakistan, which is still paying the price for interference in Afghanistan, is hardly in the mood to march into Yemen simply to show Sunni solidarity. Iran can be a serious spoiler for Pakistan in Afghanistan and its Baluchistan province and Pakistan risks more in confronting rather than engaging Iran. And, what after Yemen? – Syria? Iraq? Pakistan is no superpower.
The Arab Gulf collectively spends $100 billion-$150 billion annually on defence, not counting spending in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. In short, the Pakistani establishment concluded that if, even then the rebels in Yemen cannot be militarily subdued, any firepower Pakistan could bring is not going to make much difference. Yemen is a quagmire and Pakistan would pay the cost at home by not being able to resolve the issues in its tribal areas, Baluchistan, Karachi and with its rival India.
In the end, not much has changed: Pakistan stands by its Arab Gulf allies to protect their territorial integrity. But the “Arab spring” and its consequences, Arab-Persian rivalry and Sunni-Shia conflict in the Arab world have complex dynamics that are alien or, at best, peripheral to Pakistan.
Beyond this, the Pakistani establishment appears to have made a conscientious decision to shield the country from the issues devastating the Arab world from within. These are issues that Pakistan does not understand deeply and does not desire to import. Pakistan is more introverted than ever.