Pakistan has become suddenly deeply involved in the Middle East, through its on-off participation in the Yemen crisis, with the decision not being taken to meet the Saudi request for Pakistani military assistance. There are signs that the state would like to accept the request, but the government is fearful of taking too hasty a decision. If one was to accept the reasoning of those who find the current state system contradictory to Islam, it is wrong to allow Pakistani forces to take part in the fighting with Muslim brothers. Even if one accepts the present state system as legitimate, joining the fighting does not accord with Pakistan’s national interest.

It would be useful to remember that the sentiment of pan-Islamism is appealed to, with the prospect being raised on unrest in Pakistan if the Harmain Sharifain are occupied. This makes certain assumptions, not necessarily warranted. First, that a Houthi occupation would somehow be inferior to that of the present Saudi dynasty, at least in the sense of being more upsetting to the populace. Secondly, that the Houthis are capable of occupying the Harmain at all. As if realizing that the second reason will not wash, the fate of Pakistanis in Yemen is being given prominence, even though Yemen is not really a destination for Pakistani expatriates. Of course, the ‘holy places’ argument is not being allowed to wash, by the cacophony of voices pointing out that Pakistan never lifted a finger for the Al-Aqsa Mosque, even though it has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

However, Saudi Arabia is host to a large Pakistani expatriate community, and this provides a clue to why the Pakistani government is so anxious to answer the call. Saudi Arabia’s belief that it has a special place in Pakistani hearts is based on the fact that it has been a guarantor of its economic survival, not just through the expatriates, but as the Saudi state, and has also been involved in its internal politics. The Sharif family’s links go back to the time when the Sharif family patriarch went there in the 1970s after the Bhutto-era nationalization of his business, and extended to the exile of the Sharif brothers there after the 1999 coup.

While the Harmain have a special place for all Muslims, Yemen has a special place for all Arabs. The reason should make it special to all Muslims too. The Arabs were made up of two intertwined strains. One was that of the descendants of Ibrahim (on whom be peace), who were represented by the Qureish of Mecca. The other strain was that of the Yemenis, some of whom settled in Yathrib, and were the ancestors of the Aus and Khazraj. These tribes had numerous marriage connections with the Qureish, and one of them was Abdul Muttalib. When he selected a wife for one of his sons, he chose a girl with a Qureishi father and a Yathribi mother. The Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) was their child, and thus, decades before he settled there and so changed its name to the city of the Prophet (Madinatun-Nabi), he (PBUH) was already connected to it. Muslims should remember that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was not just a descendant of Ibrahim (on whom be peace) through the Qureish, but was also of the Yemenis through his Yathribi grandmother and great-grandmother.

It is interesting that there is a sectarian spectre being raised in all this. The Houthis are Zaidi Shias, which makes them somewhat different to the Ithna Ashariya (Twelver) Shias of Iran and Iraq. They even follow a different school of thought, the Zaidi, not the Jafari of the Twelvers. Indeed, they are known as the Fivers, (and thus constitute a third school of Shias not familiar to Pakistanis who only know the Twelvers and the Seveners, or Ismailis). This puts the Iranians in the position of backing Shias even if they are not Twelvers, like the Alawis of Syria, who are as out of the fold of Islam as Ahmedis. The sectarian opposition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is reinforced by the Arab-Ajami opposition. Pakistan is an ajami country, but is majority Sunni. However, it is not opposed to the Shia as much as the Ahle Hadith Saudis. Pakistan not only has a large Shia minority, but its Sunni school, Hanafi, is relatively tolerant of the Shia, and the majority of the population is Barelvi, which seems to have taken over so many Shia practices.

However, while Iran may be supporting any Shia, even if they are of a different sub-sect, Pakistan should be wary of this, because is it too much of a coincidence that Iran’s nuclear negotiations are entering a decisive phase, and that the whole crisis in the Middle East shows that the US policy in the region is in shambles? Any Pakistani attempts to counter Iran should cause disruption, and would be predicated on the ‘Pakistan First’ ideology so beloved of General Pervez Musharraf.

Though such emotive issues as the ‘sanctity of the Harmain’ and the ‘expats at risk’ issues have been raised, the reality cannot be escaped that the crisis is essentially an internal one, not even an Arab one. Saudi Arabia has managed to convert the struggle between the Houthis and President Mansour into an international one. It should not be forgotten that the Houthis are backed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who fell only recently, in the Arab Spring. The Houthis may not have rebelled to bring him back, but that is one of the inevitabilities of a Houthi success. They themselves do not have any other candidate for President. Ali Abdullah Saleh seems likely to want a comeback.

The Saudi involvement is not just about Iran, but about Aden, which is the first important port after the passage of the Suez Canal. Aden was important enough for (then) South Yemen to be a British colony, under British India. The Saudis may be acting on their own, but they have taken US permission before acting. Thus Pakistani help to Saudi Arabia would not be just about them, but also have US approval. The USA might oppose Iran in its nuclear programme, but it is also closely linked to the Saudi dynasty. The influence of Big Oil is virtually inevitable in this respect.

Pakistan should remember that even if it allows its forces to engage in combat only if the Harmain are under threat, the availability of those forces (such as for internal security duties) would mean that Saudi forces would be freed up for fighting in Yemen. Fighting the Saudis’ war against Yemen is one thing. Fighting the US’s war is another. If there is reverence for the Harmain, there should also be some for Yemen.