Yemen is a microcosm of the destabilizing forces which are now ripping apart the Middle East. The Arab Spring and its aftermath have led the country once again to a state of civil war with different factions engaged in hostilities to gain power. The internal conflict in Yemen has been aggravated by sectarian overtones since mostly the Shias and the Sunnis are arrayed against each other in the fighting. The situation has been further complicated by the effects of the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The presence of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) adds to the explosive character of the mixture brewing in Yemen. Overlaid on all of this are the machinations of the non-regional powers, especially the US-led Western countries, which are engaged in the protection of their strategic interests more than anything else. The gathering storm in Yemen has the potential to destabilize the whole region. Pakistan, therefore, must deal with extreme circumspection the explosive situation in Yemen and the rest of the Middle East.

The Arab Spring of 2011 unleashed the forces of liberty in the Arab world against the background of dictatorial regimes of various types, which had been ruling the various Arab countries. The Arab Spring was indeed a revolt against the political suppression and extremes of poverty to which the Arab masses had been subjected by their inefficient and corrupt governments. The obsequious attitude of these governments towards the predatory and unjust policies of the Western governments in the Middle East as reflected by their exploitation of the oil and gas resources of the region and unjust handling of the Palestinian issue added to the grievances of the Arab masses.

The Arab revolt which started from Tunisia soon spread to other countries including Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen leading to the overthrow of the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. While the conditions in Tunisia seem to be stabilizing, Libya is being torn apart by domestic factions pulling it in different directions. In Egypt, the army has succeeded in overthrowing the elected government of Morsi and imposing a thinly disguised military government with the financial backing of the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf region. The revolt against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which was supported by Saudi Arabia and others in the Persian Gulf region because of rivalry against Iran and sectarian considerations as well as by the West in pursuit of its own strategic interests, has lost steam somewhat. This is mainly due to the support to the Syrian regime by Russia, Iran and Hizbullah, and the emergence of ISIS which is seen as a greater threat by the West than Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Following the uprising of 2011 in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was persuaded to accept in Riyadh a GCC plan for political transition under which he handed over power to Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi on 27 February, 2012. However, the new government was soon faced by challenges posed by the Houthis and separatists. There is little doubt that Ali Abdullah Saleh, who retains considerable influence in Yemeni armed forces, played a crucial role behind the scenes in enabling the Houthis led by Abdul Malek al-Houthi to capture Sana’a, the capital, in September, 2014. This ultimately led to the mass resignation of the government led by President Hadi in January, 2015. Hadi managed on 21 February, 2015 to flee to Aden where he rescinded his resignation and declared himself as the constitutional head of state of Yemen again. Meanwhile, the Houthis rejected an initiative by the GCC and continued their advance towards Aden forcing Hadi to take refuge in Riyadh. On 26 March, Saudi Arabia commenced air strikes inside Yemen and massed its troops along the border amidst Saudi claims that the Houthis were being aided by Iran. Several other Arab countries are militarily supporting Saudi Arabia while the US is providing intelligence and logistic support.

A dispassionate analysis of all the relevant factors leads one to the following conclusions. The conflict in Yemen is primarily a civil war in which the Houthis and supporters of former President Al Abdullah Saleh from the north are arrayed against Mansour Hadi and his supporters from the south. Yemen has been the victim of civil wars in the past. The latest armed conflict fits into this historical pattern. Secondly, it would be wrong to look at the situation in Yemen with purely a sectarian prism as political factors more than the sectarian ones are the driving force behind the current conflict. Thirdly, there have been charges of Iranian support to Shia Houthis but these charges, which have been given wide currency by the Western media but have been denied by Iran, remain largely unsubstantiated. Fourthly, Saudi Arabia has sided with one or the other side in the civil wars in Yemen on several occasions in the past. The latest Saudi military intervention in Yemen should not come as a total surprise considering this historical background, Saudi sensitivity to the emergence of a Shia-led government in Yemen in its backyard, and the possibility that such a government may enable Iran, whom Saudi Arabia views as a regional rival, to expand its influence in the region. Saudi concerns have been aggravated by the emergence of a Shia-led government in Iraq which is closely allied with Iran.

Pakistan enjoys extremely close brotherly ties with Saudi Arabia which has provided badly needed assistance to Pakistan on several crucial occasions in the past. But Pakistan’s friendship with Iran, strategically speaking, is no less important. We cannot sacrifice our friendly relations with one for the sake of the other. Islamabad, therefore, must respond to the Saudi request for assistance in Yemen after careful consideration of all the relevant factors and after internal consultations with all the stakeholders. Secondly, we must not be a party to any military intervention in Yemen’s internal conflict in line with our past well-tried policy of steering clear of intra-Arab disputes. In any case, our own circumstances do not permit such an adventure which carries dangerous internal and external implications. Perhaps the most that we can do is to join a UN or OIC peace-keeping force to be sent to Yemen with the agreement of the various Yemeni parties and regional countries. Thirdly, we must support all initiatives within the framework of the Arab League, the OIC or the UN aimed at bringing the warring parties in Yemen to the negotiating table for a political settlement and durable peace. Hopefully, the deliberations at the recent Arab League Summit at Sharm el-Sheikh would ultimately lead in that direction. Fourthly, we must reaffirm our readiness to come to the help of Saudi Arabia in any way we can for its defense against external aggression.

Finally, our vital interests demand that we take all possible political and diplomatic initiatives to prevent the expansion of the internal conflict in Yemen into a regional conflict. A direct or indirect conflict between Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its friends in the Arab world, on the other, would not only be detrimental to regional peace, stability, and prosperity but would also pose a serious threat to Pakistan’s vital interests. We must, therefore, adopt a pro-active approach and take necessary initiatives bilaterally and multilaterally to encourage and facilitate talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia with the objective of arriving at a mutual understanding on issues of regional peace and stability.