The second visit to Saudi Arabia by the highest level of Pakistani state and government functionaries within a week, demonstrates the concern prevailing in Islamabad over the complications that have arisen in Pak-Saudi relations during the current politico-military conflict in Yemen. Reference to two other important facts will further explain the gravity of the situation. First, PM Nawaz Sharif tried to water down the resolution of the Parliament by refuting the impression of neutrality (after the Shahbaz Sharif led delegation to Saudi Arabia). He came out with an explanation of the resolution that amounted to the total support of the Saudi position on the Yemen conflict (something contrary to the parliamentary resolution). Apparently, that failed to satisfy the Saudi rulers and hence arose the need for the second visit to KSA by the top military and political leadership. Secondly, it would appear that the highest state functionaries could take time out for an in-depth discussion on the conflict in Yemen just before, during and right after the most important and historic visit of the Chinese President. It seems that Pakistani authorities, while discussing the Pak-China Economic Corridor, kept feeling the heat of the Arab sands due to recent developments. The pro Saudi extremist outfits (some of them proscribed ones), although a fringe phenomenon in Pakistan, left no stone unturned to put pressure on the government to support the Saudi position.

It is quite clear that the present Pakistani government will go to any extent to demonstrate its support and solidarity with KSA on a bilateral level. However, the problem is that Saudi rulers will not be satisfied with that alone. They ask that Pakistan join the alliance of nine Sunni Arab governments (as the only non Arab state) against (Shi’ite) Iran. If Pakistan does that, it will by implication commit the deployment of Pakistani troops for fighting in Yemen on the side of pro-Saudi tribal factions. This is something that Pakistan obviously cannot do. Pakistan has already burnt its fingers by getting involved in the military conflict in Afghanistan. As a result, the country has been bogged down in the quagmire of religious extremism and terrorism. How can Pakistan commit the second blunder as it is still reeling from the impact of the first? Amongst other things, Pakistani involvement in the Yemeni conflict will ultimately lead to sectarian tensions in Pakistan though the fighting in Yemen is essentially a power struggle. Representing the aspirations of Pakistani people, the Parliament has clearly laid down the policy of non interference in the military conflict in Yemen. Sending Pakistani troops to Yemen will be in clear violation of the unanimous resolution of the country’s Parliament. Similarly, it will also be violative of Article 40 of the Constitution of Pakistan which says; “The State shall endeavor to preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslin countries based on Islamic unity, support the common interests of the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America...” We have the example of Turkey before us. Turkey initially sided with Saudi Arabia but subsequently refused to be dragged militarily into Yemen and tried to balance its position by establishing high level contacts with Iran.

In past conflicts, Saudi rulers could look towards the US for more active support. But the situation has considerably changed over the last few years. KSA was not satisfied with the amount of US support to groups fighting against the Assad regime. Severe US-Saudi disagreement came to the surface in 2013 when KSA refused to accept a rotating seat in the UN Security Council in protest against US policies in the Middle East. As if that was not enough, the progress in negotiations amongst Iran and the US-led Western countries on a nuclear deal further strengthened Saudi skepticism. Saudi rulers believe that the proposed deal will allow Iran to proceed with its nuclear project and that when western sanctions are lifted, Iran will emerge as an important player in Middle Eastern politics like it once was under Reza Shah. Interestingly, the Iran led by Ayatollahs will be stronger than Reza Shah’s Iran in the sense that the political and military clout that present day Iran wields in Arab countries was not enjoyed by that country in the past. Although the US is still interested in Middle Eastern oil, it is no longer dependent on it. When President Obama says that oil is not our core interest, he is hinting at a new US approach towards the Middle East. Israel is readying itself for the new situation by taking a more hawkish position on Palestine which will not be helpful in achieving peace and stability. The vacuum created by big powers will be filled by regional powers. Unfortunately, Arab countries are in disarray and the don’t appear to have visionary leadership to cope with the serious challenges faced by the region, particularly the challenge of sectarian divide. The Arab Spring can’t be crushed by costly imported weapons. There is an urgent need for genuine reform for empowering the people. Yet, most of the rulers are reluctant to take that path. For the near future, the situation appears to be quite dismal.

Be that as it may, our rulers should be very careful in dealing with the situation in the Middle East. First of all, Pakistan is a South Asian country. It should not shun this identity. While Pakistan should have the best of relations with Middle Eastern countries, it must remain out of their internal conflicts. Supporting the cause of the Palestinian people is a genuine cause, but civil strife in Yemen is not. All friendly countries should know that the exporting of toxic extremist ideologies to Pakistan through investing petrodollars in seminaries will not be a friendly act. Last but not least, Saudi Arabia and Iran should be told clearly that Pakistan will not allow them to fight their proxy sectarian wars on its soil. That is an important external dimension of the war on terror in our country. We need a break from the curses of the Cold War. As a state, Pakistan’s future lies in democracy, peaceful coexistence and socio economic development to enter the 21st century.