Mr Nawaz Sharif, the Saudi-Yemeni conflict is not our war to fight

Published: March 27, 2015
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A Saudi official (R) welcomes Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) upon.

As the Houthi rebels strengthen their stranglehold over the country, amid the surreptitious flight of the Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the long raging civil war in Yemen has finally come into the international spotlight.

Pakistan is, once again, at crossroads with Saudi Arabia, who is attempting to suck in inter-ethnic, inter-religious, and intra-sectarian conflicts into their black hole.

The prospects of petro-dollars coupled with the longstanding romance between the Sharifs and Sauds, buoyed by a rise of the Pakistan Army as a bulwark against both domestic as well as international terrorism, in recent times, might have made the temptation of joining the Saudi alliance irresistible, but it is an alliance which must be resisted.

That Pakistan should not embroil itself in a new war seems a no-brainer. Yet decades of misplaced priorities and mercurial and xenophobic foreign policy-making decisions have clouded or perhaps, blinded us towards our ‘national’ interests and how to achieve them.

The disorder of social amnesia amongst our public may be one of the major reasons for this disastrous ideological bickering among ruling elites. Moreover, the recent statement of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif about his stance on Saudi Arabia seems more like a ploy to support his Saudi ‘brothers’ in their imperialist adventures in the Gulf region, rather than a purely threat-based assessment.

For those of us wise or old enough to recall, the last time the Pakistan army aided a war in the Gulf from 1967-1970, under the command of the infamous General Ziaul Haq, it became known as “Black September”. Thousands of Palestinians were killed and displaced from Jordan, squandering all the goodwill that we had achieved earlier. Therefore, this time around, we must not be on the wrong side of history. But before going further, let’s stop for a bit and analyse the current situation in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is currently busy helping the ailing Yemeni government to fight off the Houthi rebels – a Shi’ite group of the Zaidi denomination who ruled North Yemen for about a 1000 years. They are mostly concentrated in the north of the country, which used to be a separate republic before it was unified with the south to form modern day Yemen in 1990.

Since then, the Houthis – who named their movement after Hussein Badraldin al Houthi, the man who led the first uprising against the Yemeni government in 2004, and was assassinated subsequently – have steadily gained ground in the past few months, closing in on Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen.

The Saudis have long been meddling in the political upheaval in Yemen. Their current preoccupation is therefore a part of the larger desire to maintain their long established political, religious, and now more so, military hegemony in the Gulf region.

To make matters worse, its nemeses, the ultra-sectarian Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have also managed to consolidate their power in the chaotic country. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a long-standing Saudi contender for ideological influence in the Middle East, is also stepping up support for the Houthis, their fellow Shiites. Thus, engulfed in a bitter intra-sectarian and inter-ethnic rivalry, the Saudis are desperate for help.

This hodge-podge of sectarian strife, spiced up by the entry of ISIS and AQAP, warrants a cautions and pragmatic policy by Pakistan. In its crusade against the so-called ‘terrorists’ in the country and region, Pakistan must not get carried away and adopt a blanket policy towards all insurgencies.

The Houthis, for example, are not the Taliban or al Qaeda, contrary to what the Saudis might suggest. They do not call for the establishment of an obscurantist and puritanical form of theocracy; instead they are fighting primarily to achieve socio-economic security, and just political representation which has long been denied to them by the dictatorial central government.

We must not, therefore, in principle, be privy to such a coalition. Since principles hardly matter when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign policy, Realpolitik may help deter us from yet another military adventure for two reasons.

First, Pakistan shares a long and porous border with Iran through its troubled province of Balochistan. With a separatist insurgency brewing in its own backyard, irking the Iranians by thwarting their attempts in Yemen could only turn out to be ominous. That Iranians would not retaliate by propping up the Baloch rebels (freedom fighters) is wishful thinking at best and naivety at its worst.

Tensions have already been simmering under the surface of Pak-Iran bilateral relations over the issue of Pakistan’s alleged support for Sunni terrorist groups operating on Iranian soil, and this move will just add fuel to the fire.

Secondly, and more importantly, allying with the Saudis to take on ISIS, AQAP, and Houthis all at once, would only entangle Pakistan into a protracted and tiring war with the Middle-Eastern jihadists, leading to increased hostilities at home and abroad. If the blowback of the ‘Afghan Jihad’ in the 1980s seems lost in retrospect, the recent quagmire of the US, Saudi, Qatari, Jordanian, and Iranian forces battling both each other and the Syrian forces should refresh our memories.

After 70 years of precarious existence, far from what Jinnah envisaged as a democratic Muslim model, we are still grappling with core issues such as basic healthcare, a faltering education system, rampant corruption, and moral and cultural depravity.

Thus, it is time that we stopped meddling in others’ wars and started fighting our own.

Zulfikar Ali

Zulfikar Ali

He is a graduate student at International Christian University in Tokyo. His research interests include religion and conflict in South Asia and the Middle-East.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • KahnaKacha

    Yes, Pakistan should not interfere in Yemen and let Iranand Saudi governments fight it out between them.

    But your logic “Pakistan’s alleged support for Sunni terrorist groups operating on Iranian soil”
    AND “That Iranians would not retaliate by propping up the Baloch rebels (freedom fighters) is wishful thinking at best and naivety at its worst.” is totally flawed.

    Baluch who are separatists, want freedom from both Iran and Pakistan. So called Sunni Terrorists are actually Baluch Sunni Rebels in Iran, and Iran would never support any Baluch insurgency (whether you call them Sunni Terrorists or Baluch rebels/freedom fighters) , because end of the day they are same rebels with same cause.Recommend

  • Kareemullah

    Saudi Arabia is a selfish country with a despotic kingdom. Pakistan will definitely disintegrate if involved directly in Saudi’s damn affairs.Recommend

  • RFD

    Agree with you 100% The frustrated ‘ameerul momineen’ surreptitious
    foster son and portege of Zia ul Haq is trying to involve Paks in a local
    internal conflict. As long as Nawaz’s family is safe [no member in the Army]
    he does not give a doozy about spilling Pak blood in some country that Pak
    has no business getting involved in.Recommend

  • Zee

    Though I agree that Pakistan should not enter into the Yemen – Saudia war zone but by which standard Iran is meddling in all the ME region. If majority has the power to rule than this rule equally applied in Iraq as well where Iran is involved / backing minority government and responsible for millions of Sunni Muslim killing.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely argued and I agree the decision is almost a no-brainer.Recommend

  • syed & syed

    Pakistan being a poor having uneducated masses can not afford to jump into a war of others nor should it take sides. Do not poke your foot into boiling water. Mr Nawaz may have business interest in Saudi Arabia and may be in many other countries. His belly is full. Have mercy on poor under nourished people of Pakistan. We are already fighting in our country.Recommend

  • Usman

    Well saidRecommend

  • islooboy

    There is a Balochistan in Iran tooRecommend

  • maktal

    Mr. Zulfiqar, Iran’s backing for rebels arounf Saudi Arabia is also none of Iran’s business… To protect Grand Mosque is a duty of Pakistan Armed Forces…

    Take care and keep your wishful thinking to yourselfRecommend

  • MMH

    Where is Pakistan when Isreal kills Palestinians?? Where is Saudi’s when Pakistani’s are killed by US, India and terrorist inside Pakistan?? As far as Grand Mosque is concerned… Iran is also a Muslim state and frankly they won’t harm the Mosque as it is their holy site as well.. Therefore, this bloody war does not concern Pakistan especially when the fight is between Muslims.. WE ALREADY have ALOT of PROBLEMS INSIDE PAKISTAN.. You keep your ridiculous and ludicrous thinking to yourself..Recommend

  • Ch. Allah Daad

    This article reflects beggar’s mentality. What are we, beggars, allies, friends, brothers or neutral observers. If we are allies, friends and brothers, then we must stand up with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Nations as they have stood with us in every thick and thin. Yemeni rebels and IS have same agenda, capture strategic areas and control rest of the Islamic world. We must stand with those who are fighting these evil forces. Neutrality at this moment when we must chose between right and wrong is worst strategy.Recommend

  • we know

    Don’t forget Nawaz Sharif is a household employee of Saudis.Recommend

  • maktal

    You are being so confident as if they (Iranis) haven’t tried to capture the grand mosque in past or maybe you share their same heretic ideology yourself which is clearly evident from your language used in your reply.

    What makes you so sure that Houti’s next move after capturing port of aden will not be putting a naval blockade to Saudi Oil Transportation and starve its economy to death ? So , considering this only possible motive of Iran, this ALREADY is OUR PROBLEM now. Saudia is giving us Oil @40$/bbl despite of daily fluctuation in price globally

    As far as Palestine is concerned, Its President Mahmood Abbas who stood with Saudi Arabia in this recent military campaign against Irani backed Houtis just like he stood with Israel on the issue of bombing Irani backed Hammas in gaza. IF you think Palestine is Gaza then you are very much ill informed as far as history is concerned

    Calling someone’s views which are based on facts ‘ridiculous and ludicrous’ doesn’t make you better than him while your own argument is full of dishonesty, coinciding with the correct history and full of sectarian biasRecommend

  • Zee

    Why Iran is supporting Yemeni rebels and all other rebels creating troubles for Sunni regimes? Pl read the history and you will always find Iran the culprit in all conflicts affected Muslims UmmahRecommend

  • Zee

    Not only this argument but his whole article is baseless and wishful thinking. Iran always supported Shia terrorists not only in Pakistan but in Middle East, Iraq etc only to because they are from the same sect.Recommend

  • Claude Boels

    remind us when sunnis arabs stood with pakistan ….. they can’t even stand with palestinians, and stand with themself !!Recommend

  • Dapindiboy

    yes Pakistan should not be involved in Yemen, Iran should mind its own business , Saudia harbor AQAP/ISIS well we do not live in such poetic world there are ground realities, whether anyone likes it or not we should be in this war Yemen is Iran’s proxy state and if things go south Iran and Saudia will be in war which west will be cheering and it will cause a divide in the Ummah, and atmost if Pakistan goes in the war we have big army with a lot of assets we might not participate in the actual war be will be required to give a naval blockade or a few battalions ,brigade or a Division and Duh we will be compensated.Recommend

  • RFD

    The Arab nations have done nothing for Paks. Except give some
    disgruntled lip service. And throw some dirhams or riyals in the
    begging bowl. Do not ask other Paks to die in a
    local regional dispute. No one from Yemen ‘attacked’ Saudia.
    It is an internal matter of Yemen, a civil war. Exactly as what is going
    on in Pakland. Are the Arabs helping the Paks fight the terrorists
    in Pakland?Recommend

  • sattar rind

    but on any account albakistan will fight against the yemenRecommend

  • Humza

    You hit the nail on the head. Obviously the author does not realise that both Iran and Pakistan worked together to crush a small Baluch separatist movement in the past. The Iranians are still putting down Baluch separatists in Iran who are more committed separatists than any Baluch in Pakistan. Baluch in Iran are largely Sunni and wish to break away from Iran. Majority of Baluchistan residents in Pakistan are actually pro Pakistani, especially the Pashtuns who are now in majority. A few tribal sardars on foreign payrolls are the only separatists in Pak Baluchistan and they have limited support among the locals. So the Baluch issue should not be a factor in whether or not Pakistan involves itself in the Saudi lead effort to stop Houthi rebels in Yemen. Why Iran is supporting Bashir Asad in Syria or why it is supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen makes no sense when the Iranian economy is in such a bad state. Although I think Pakistan should not get messed up in a war in Yemen which has no direct implications for it, I can’t understand why Iran is not focusing on helping its own people who can’t get access to basic medicines. With support of the US, Egypt, Gulf States and others, it is clear that Houthis will be defeated. Pakistan can choose to be on the winning side or sit it out but the reality is clear. Being on the winning side may help investment and links but that’s just a personal view.Recommend

  • Uzair

    Mr Nawaz is the elected leader of Pakistan and can go ahead with whatever he wishes to with parliament’s approval. Doesn’t need lessons on morality from pseudo-intellectuals.Recommend

  • guest

    I think majority of the people of Pakistan does not want to step into this, as they are already trying so hard in getting their basic needs and in their day to day life/problems. Mr.Nawaz Sharif should be bothered about his own home first rather than Saudis !!!Recommend

  • guest

    What was wrong with my comment ET???Recommend

  • Ramchand

    Correct. True. Also look at it this way. They have labor chowks
    in every city. Why can’t they have Fauji chowks?Recommend

  • Tarak Vaakil

    Just out of curiosity should Pakistan not enter this war, this would become Saudi’s very own Afghan Jihad, and the would make it certain that ISIS would gain a stronghold in that area,,,,,,, u r aware that ISIS clearly states that it would bomb Mecca and Kabba right,,,,,,,,,,,,so come on Pakistan for the sake of Ummah sacrifice ur country and destroy ur local area instead of ur beloved Saudi ancestors ( u lot r sayedi muslims aren’t ya )Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht

    What makes you think that calling a commenter “heretic”
    makes YOU right? No, Mahmoud Abbas did NOT stand
    with Saudia. Yemen is Houthis country. They and other
    sects can have a civil war, for next 20 years. It is THEIR country. Let them decide. They use to be South Yemen
    and North Yemen. until some politicians decided to combine again. Who are YOU to second guess what the Houthis will
    do? They use to have Somalian Pirates there. blocking
    shipping lanes and hijacking ships, for years. Until some countries banded together to confront the pirates.
    That was E U countries and Pakistan. SAUDIA was not part
    of the patrolling force!!…This is not an Arab Spring. The
    Spring failed, miserably. This is Saudia screaming for HELP
    and using Wahabi Sunni religion as the mayday! mayday!
    cry. Come help us Mecca is under attack !. And YES the
    Grand Mosque is a holy site for Shias.Recommend

  • SamSal

    You can’t be serious!Recommend

  • maktal

    Take care and get more educated to remain aware of situation.

    Check out Mahmoud Abbas’s declaration of standing with KSA in this conflict whereas Houtis constitute less than 20% of total population of Yemen.Recommend

  • Zee

    By your standard, why Iran is involved in fighting side by side with America in Iraq, why in Syria? Also supporting extremists Shias in Pakistan? Recommend

  • Grace

    Pakistan will not disintegrate if it gets involved in Saudi Arabia’s affairs. GCC States, Turkey, Egypt and others are all lining up to support the effort. Are they all going to disintegrate because you say it? Saudi Arabia may be selfish and despotic but Pakistan needs to ensure that millions of workers still have employment in the peninsula and keep sending home Forex. Pakistan first.Recommend