Judgment Call

Spearhead Analysis – 08.04.2015

Pak-Saudi RelationshipsFirst there was the unexplained 1.5 billion dollar ‘gift’ from Saudi Arabia. Then Qatar came calling and the first ship carrying LNG arrived as part of a reportedly 22 billion dollar deal. Now we have the US notification to Congress of an impending sale of Viper attack helicopters, Hellfire missiles and associated navigational and fire control equipment as part of the US Foreign Military Sales program worth almost a billion dollars. In the midst of all these happenings there was the Saudi initiative to form a coalition and attack Yemen followed by the request to Pakistan for naval and air support and ground troops — a request being vigorously debated in Pakistan both within and outside Parliament against an ominous silence from the military. Analysts are busy connecting the dots but the keyword coming across is — ‘caution lest we get into another imbroglio’. The government has yet to take a final decision — and it is going to be the government’s decision as is evident from the goings on in the joint sessions of Parliament.

Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia spans many decades. In the Saudi Ministry of Defense (MODA) there is the headquarters of the Senior Pakistan Armed Forces Officer (SPAFO). The SPAFO coordinates the work and administration of all Pakistani defense personnel in the Kingdom — mostly technical support people and medics. Except for the period 1983 to 1988 when an Independent Armored Brigade Group and Artillery units were based in Tabuk and Khamis Mushayt for training purposes only and under a carefully negotiated protocol. Also during the first Gulf war in 1991 Pakistan responded positively to a request for ground forces to be stationed within Saudi borders for territorial defense only — the US was coordinating all operations at that time. It is also note worthy that Pakistan has a very large presence of workers in the Kingdom and the major chunk of the remittances from abroad comes from there.

 The current Saudi request for troops, naval and air support from Pakistan comes in an environment that is totally different from the past. Long standing regimes have crumbled, countries are locked in civil war and in danger of fragmenting, there is the phenomenon of the Islamic State under a ‘Caliph’, a resurgent Iran returning to the US fold signals a Shia-Sunni divide within Islam and so far no statesman has risen above state interests to tackle the regional situation and work on unity within Islam. The recent Turkish and Iranian interaction and their follow-up expected interaction with Pakistan have raised expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough in the emerging grid lock. Above all Pakistan is carrying out very comprehensive military operations in the western border areas against insurgents and terrorists — and these government mandated operations have across the board support in Pakistan. It looks as if the non Arab States ringing the Arab states have to play a stabilizing role without physically intervening in the ongoing conflict.

Pakistan finally has what its people have always wanted — an elected government, functional democracy but with the military in some kind of over watch, tutorial and corrective role rolled into one. This has come about after some initial hiccups and the military and the political leadership is now on the same page. The contours of a strategic policy are emerging — good cooperative bilateral relationships with all the neighbors, including India, support to Afghan stabilization, strengthened relations with the US, China, Russia and the EU and a broad understanding with the entire Muslim world. The chronic skeptics are hard at work undermining the military and the government, raising doubts and painting doomsday scenarios but realities are overtaking their efforts that are mostly inspired from across our borders. Pakistan is focusing on its internal consolidation, elimination of exploitable vulnerabilities and its economy. These considerations are now driving foreign policy — a lesson learnt the hard way.

It is in the context of all these considerations that Pakistan has to decide and it is a tough judgment call. Saudi Arabia does not face a threat from across its borders but instability in its soft underbelly Yemen and the violence brewing in its neighborhood creates the specter of internal destabilization. For this Pakistani troop presence can be a deterring factor but this limited presence does not need naval and air support. This is what can be discussed with the Saudis. There can also be discussions on emergency or rapid response in case of a crisis situation that threatens Saudi Arabia. The best option right now is to support the diplomatic initiative being developed and have a dialogue with the Saudis on how best Pakistan can be supportive without jeopardizing its own interests and security. The political leadership has to be active and savvy.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual)