It is possible to imagine someone finding funny the contortions of the Pakistani establishment about answering the Saudi Arabian request for assistance in its intervention against the Houthis of Yemen, had those contortions not been so painful. It would be an illustration of the shambolic approach of the Nawaz government that the joint session of Parliament failed to come up with a resolution of support, if indeed the government does decide to send troops to the assistance of the Saudis.

It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia has not taken a position that would reduce the chaos in Yemen, which is now without an effective government. It may well have given sanctuary to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but the sole motive cannot be his restoration. Saudi Arabia might well be a status-quo power, but its government is more concerned with the survival of the Saudi dynasty, now slowly managing the transition to the third generation, than the fate of Hadi. The Saudis might be legitimists, but they do not care so much for the legitimacy principle in other countries that they not only will commit their own forces, but also call in their debts, and ask for other countries to join the coalition against the Houthis.

A joint session of Parliament contains a built-in official majority. If the government wishes it to pass a particular resolution, it will do so. If, as is being said, the back benches refuse to pass a resolution of the kind the government wants, their ability to pass a resolution that goes against the government is so small as to be non-existent. Therefore, the resolution which the joint sitting passed must be seen as having government approval.

Yet the government’s disapproval is not seen as final. There seems to be a common assumption that the troops will go anyhow. That impression tended to be reinforced by the UAE Deputy Foreign Minister’s reaction to the resolution. Saudi Arabia has apparently maintained a strict propriety by refusing to intervene in Pakistan’s internal affairs, but the UAE is apparently readier to rush in. Saudi Arabia has been ready previously to intervene in purely domestic Pakistani politics, most notably in the case of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s exile and return. Put together, Saudi Arabia and the UAE account for the substance of the Pakistani expatriates in the Gulf. It is true that this offers considerable leverage over Pakistan, but it should not be ignored that neither country can afford to lose so many skilled workers. It is also worth noting that neither country has made the threat, being content to leave it to Pakistanis themselves to imagine the worst.

Pakistan owes the Saudis. Not just because they supervise the Hajj, but because they are the ultimate guarantors of the Pakistani state. The latest example came only last year, when they put up about $1 billion so that Pakistan could stay afloat. If Pakistan does not send troops now, there is the danger that such aid will not be forthcoming. Another aspect is the desire to make the relationship transactional. True, the states of the Arabian Peninsula have long hired serving or retired armed forces personnel for their armed forces, to the extent that deputation to the Middle East often made the fortune of a military officer, and the eagerness to accept UN Observerships was a sort of replacement of these deputations. However, the state would like to benefit tangibly this time, and its thought that the colour of money would play a persuasive role in sending forces to Saudi Arabia.

One complicating factor for Pakistan is the sectarian character given to the conflict. It is not simply a question of one state intervening in the affairs of another. Pakistan is one of those countries which cannot be identified as belonging to one sect or the other. Apart from the formality of the law of any one sect not being implemented, the population is mixed. While Pakistan owes much to Saudi Arabia, it neighbours Iran, and would prefer to avoid difficulties with it. Relations have become particularly important after its nuclear deal with the USA opened the way to its finalizing the cancelled IPI, and it is clear that Pakistan is working hard on it.

However, Pakistan is lumped with Saudi Arabia as a Sunni country, though the country with which it most resembles is Yemen from the sectarian point of view. There is an ancient Arab-Persian divide, to which has been added the sectarian clash between the Ithna Ashariya Shias of Iran and the Salafi Muwahidoon of Saudi Arabia. Then there is the Zaidi Shia School, followed in Yemen, which has affinity to the Hanafi Sunnis of Pakistan. It is given significance that the founders of the Hanafi and Zaidi schools both learnt from Imam Jafar, whose school the Iranians follow even today. However, perhaps more relevant is the reported Saudi request for a sectarian screening of the troops being sent. This attempt would be upsetting to the armed forces, which have prided themselves on preserving themselves from this divide.

It cannot escape notice that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are both firm US allies, to the extent that the latter has been declared a ‘major non-NATO ally’. One of the consequences of the nuclear deal is supposed to be that Iran reverts to a close relationship with the USA. Thus the conflict in Yemen would be between an overt US ally and a power that is at least an aspirant. Another US ally is being asked to intervene. How is it possible that the USA will not intervene?

The armed forces have two major reasons no to go. First, there is the visceral reason of fear. Dying for the Saudis might not be acceptable, especially when the Houthis are doing the killing. Second, there is the desire to avoid sectarian tensions. Even if the military leadership manages to fend off any screening suggestions, it does not wish to make any sectarian challenges to any of its personnel. Because in a conflict widely touted as sectarian, even members of the armed forces, taught to rise above sectarian considerations, will probably revert to loyalty to the sect of their birth.

If the military has decided not to go, then the joint session will have served more to convince the USA rather than Saudi Arabia. The former lays great store by democratic institutions, the latter does not. It should not be forgotten that the last joint session was held so that the Salala incident could be papered over. That time, the military got the decision it wanted. So why not this time?