The Middle East has once again erupted in an armed conflict – this time between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Last September, a Zaidi Shia rebel group took effective control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, riding on a wave of popular discontent over the Interim Government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, set up through a UN backed deal mediated by the Saudi-led GCC. This deal was designed to end an uprising against the country’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but collapsed soon after implementation. The Interim Government resigned and the President Mr. Hadi fled from the Capital Sanaa to the port city of Aden. Any hope of an early resolution to the crisis amongst Yemen’s rival factions evaporated because of the Saudi-led anti-rebel military offensive, the outcome of which is dragging other countries into the fight. While Arab states and the UN is standing behind the Saudis, the rebels are reportedly getting all out support from Iran, changing the scenario into an Intra- Muslim sectarian confrontation.

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For Pakistan, these are testing times. The current ruling party is highly obligated to the Saudis not only for asylum during their exile, but for economic bailing out on more than one occasion. Pakistanis (and other Muslim Nations) regard Saudi Arabia as the Islamic center of gravity given the geographical location of Makkah and the last resting place of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and any direct or indirect threat to these holy cities would be an intolerable thought. Given these factors, Pakistan has few options left, but to take up the Saudi cause. The crucial question here is: how far can we go in extension of support against the Yemeni rebels?

So far, the Government has shown sagacity in stating that elements of the Pakistani Armed Forces may be sent to Saudi Arabia, but will not be used for any ground operations inside Yemen. This decision is logical and based on the historical perspective that a sizeable number of Pakistan Army units have been stationed in the desert Kingdom in a defensive role. It is also dictated by reality that we cannot curry enmity with Iran.

It is my fervent hope that our Prime Minister does not allow his heart to overrule his head in the coming days. The situation makes it imperative that we seek a pivotal role in defusing the crisis by acting as an intermediary and bring peace to the region. This is an opportunity that we must not miss, as successful diplomacy will raise Pakistan’s image on a global scale.

On the domestic front, the Government of Pakistan has done well to fulfill its obligations to Pakistanis stranded in war torn Yemen. We have shown some spine and in bold and no uncertain terms warned the warring Yemeni factions that any move to jeopardize the life of Pakistani citizens would be considered an act of war and responded to in the appropriate manner. Credit must also go to the Pakistani mission in Yemen, which played the role required of it to ensure the safety of our citizens.

The Pakistani Airlines crew that brought our families home deserve special mention for their disregard to personal safety and outstanding professional courage. The same thoughts go out to our naval ships that are even now engaged in seaward evacuation of those stranded in Aden.

While I fully acknowledge the fact that the Saudis have always come to our aid whenever we have sought it, I must add a note of regret to this week’s piece. This regret stems from the realization that one of the richest countries in the world, whose history is replete with warrior tribes and fierce battles, has over the years become incapable of defending itself.