ISLAMABAD - After playing “neutral” for some time, Pakistan is once again under pressure to decide whether it can “afford” to remain impartial in the Saudi Arabia-Yemen conflict, diplomatic sources said.

“The Saudis have been asking Islamabad to consider if Pakistan can afford to be neutral. With the fresh wave of Saudi strikes on Yemen, the message from Riyadh is - are you coming or not?” a senior diplomat, associated with the two countries’ communication, told The Nation.

“With the failure of peace talks (with the Houthis), Saudi Arabia is strongly seeking practical participation by Pakistan in the war,” he said.

On Thursday, President Mamnoon Hussain met King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud in Jeddah and discussed “bilateral relations, regional situation and matters of mutual interest”. An official statement said, Mamnoon, a rather feeble man on a ceremonial post, told the King that the people and the government of Pakistan have “warm feelings for the brotherly people of Saudi Arabia and hold the Custodian of two Holy Mosques in high esteem”.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who along with country’s army top brass practically holds the real power, too has been repeating such statements and has also vowed to stand with Saudi Arabia in the time of need. PM Sharif personally enjoys very close relations with Saudi royalty and initially his government seemed more than ready to do KSA’s bidding in Yemen, but a parliamentary resolution on the Yemen crisis has bounded his government to stay neutral in the conflict.

The resolution, passed in April, says that Pakistan will not become a party in the Yemen crisis. Albeit, Pakistan will come to Saudi Arabia’s defence if the country’s sovereignty or territorial integrity is threatened. The resolution also urges Pakistan to play its diplomatic roles in resolving the crisis, while also calling for the country not to take sides and stay neutral in the conflict.

“The big problem is that we have not even played any diplomatic role to end the crisis, besides issuing some political statements. Saudi Arabia is asking what we have done as a friend for them”, a close aide of the prime minister told The Nation. “At this time our performance as Saudi Arabia’s friend is almost nil, as far as the Yemen conflict is concerned. They are visibly not too happy about it”, he confided.

On Saturday, the fighting intensified in Yemen following the failure of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. Warplanes operated by the Saudi-led coalition pounded the positions of Houthis in Sana’a, near the capital’s main airport. The Saudi-led alliance also bombarded Houthi positions in the oil-rich province of Mareb, in eastern Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and allies started the intervention in Yemen on March 26, after Shia rebels advanced on the southern city of Aden and forced internationally recognised President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi to flee the country. Hadi, a Sunni, is now in Saudi Arabia. On Friday, Hadi’s exiled government and the rebels failed to reach a humanitarian truce after five days of consultations in Geneva.

The Saudi-led coalition has so far shunned a ground offensive in Yemen. Already the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 1,400 civilians, according to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia continues to press Pakistan to provide tangible support for its war in Yemen. Most Pakistanis are pushing back and criticising the kingdom and its gulf allies in unprecedented candour.

PM Sharif and senior army leadership travelled to Saudi Arabia to consult on Riyadh’s request for military support against the Houthis but there was no firm commitment to join the coalition. The Sharif government is noticeably uncomfortable with saying no to its Gulf benefactors but it faces strong domestic opposition to the war.

There are some in Pakistan pressing the Saudi cause. Among the most vocal is Jamaatud Dawa (JuD). Its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, has called for Pakistan to send troops to defend the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Medina from the Houthis.

Saeed, who heads the Sunni extremist organisation with alleged past involvement in terrorism, has formed a coalition of Sunni groups to defend the mosques from danger, claiming that Israel and the United States are using the Houthis and Iran to endanger the holy places. The religious groups in Pakistan have long been playing US and Israel’s anti-Muslim card for long for their political motives.

Commenting on the situation, Defence analyst Lt-Gen Talat Masood (r) said, “Pakistan is hesitant regarding its involvement in war against Houthis. Iran should be taken into confidence that Pakistan will play its role for defence of Saudi Arabia only and will not participate in war in Yemen”. General Masood added, “Saudi Arabia feels threat from Yemini rebels so Pakistan should play its role for the solidarity of borders of Saudi Arabia”.

Analyst Dr Pervez Iqbal Cheema observed, “Pakistan has strong bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. Pakistan wants to resolve current situation in Middle East through dialogue”. He added, “Pakistan’s decision to send high level delegation to Saudi Arabia to assess the situation was a good step. Yemen has vital geographical importance in Gulf”.

Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, another commentator, remarked, “Saudi Arabia has supported Pakistan in every critical time. Pakistan should seek a peaceful solution to resolve the current situation in Yemen”. However, there are many saner voices warning the government against being more loyal to the king than the kind himself and doing anything that could worsen Pakistan’s already difficult relationship with neighbouring Iran.