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Our Saudi connection

The controversy around the deployment of Pakistani soldiers to Saudi Arabia and its possible fallout

Our Saudi connection

Myths doing the rounds in military circles recount that Pakistan Army’s SSG commandos took part in the operation to vacate the Ka’aba from a religious extremist group in 1979. There are also reports that an armoured brigade of Pakistan Army was deployed around the cities of Makkah and Madina during the first Gulf War to protect the cities. Later, a part of this brigade also took part in the victory parade of allied armies. However, officially, the military has never confirmed it.

There are two reasons why the deployment of Pakistan Army troops in Saudi Arabia has never generated hue and cry in the past. First, at the time of the first deployment there was no democracy in the country — no parliament, no representative institutions as the country was being governed by military directly. So there was no question of any one raising a voice for or against the deployment.

Secondly, in 1982 the sectarian tensions in Pakistani society were not as high as they are now. Similarly, in the Middle East, sectarian tensions had not penetrated deep into the social fabric of the Arab societies. Hence, we hear a lot of voices in our society, which express apprehensions that becoming part of military situation in the Middle East would aggravate sectarian tensions back home.

Military officials are clear that exactly 1000 troops and officers are being sent to Saudi Arabia under the command of a major general, and the contingent will include elements of Army, Air Force and Navy.

Pakistani military experts do realise that at present all the threats perceived by the Saudi state has a sectarian dimension. Whether it is threat from the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Saudi-Iran tensions or the residual tensions emanating from the political instability caused by the Arab Spring, all have sectarian dimensions.

Pakistani parliament through a resolution in April 2015 had expressed the commitment of Pakistan state with the security and territorial integrity of the Saudi Kingdom, while at the same time ordaining the army to stay away from sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. In the words of an expert, this would be an impossible task to perform “given the sectarian dimensions of the threat faced and perceived by the Saudi state”.

Military officials are clear that exactly 1000 troops and officers are being sent to Saudi Arabia under the command of a major general, and the contingent will include elements of Army, Air Force and Navy. Officials claim that there is hardly any chance of 1000 Pakistani troops, who are being sent to the Arab Kingdom, participating in any combat operation.

“We will be in advisory and training role,” says a senior military official. However, Pakistani military and government are not ready to share any operational details about the deployment of Pakistani troops with the public.

Parliamentarians were specifically interested in knowing the area in Saudi Arabia where these troops will be deployed. However, Pakistani Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir refused to divulge this information in the parliament, inviting the wrath of Senate Chairman, Raza Rabbani.

The talks between Saudi and Pakistani officials for this latest deployment have been going on for quite some time. In 2015, when the request for deployment came for the first time, both Pakistani military and government were reluctant to take part in the conflict in Yemen, primarily because of its sectarian dimension. When Pakistan refused to deploy its troops in 2015, it led to coldness in relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The government for its part is clear that the decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia would go a long way in managing the financial crisis the country is expected to face in the coming months.

The ruling Muslim League wants to repeat the performance of 1998, post-nuclear explosions financial crisis, when Nawaz Sharif personally went to the Saudi king and sought oil on deferred payment for the country. “The last visit of Sharif brothers to Saudi Arabia was in connection with getting oil on deferred payment facility for the country,” says a senior official of the ruling Muslim League. “In the wake of nuclear explosion crisis, we were provided with the facility of oil on deferred payments by the Saudi government, which started in 1998 and continued up till 2003. Later this amount was converted into a grant.”

The government officials are unequivocal in asserting that the decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia was taken during Nawaz Sharif’s last visit to Saudi Arabia, although he was not holding the office of prime minister at that time. Independent economists concur with the government’s view of the financial crisis-like situation the country is expected to face in the coming months, and the crucial role the Saudis can play in making Pakistan come out of that crisis.

Saqib Sheerani, an Islamabad based economist, who is a banker by profession, tells The News on Sunday that the country’s current account deficit had reached unmanageable proportions. “And now we are financing this current account deficit from our foreign exchange reserves because we cannot manage it by borrowing from the market,” he says, adding, “Ideally, we should expect a bailout package from the Saudi government as a quid pro quo for sending troops to Saudi Arabia. But we don’t know whether this will happen or not.”

He adds, “If the Saudi government gives us oil on deferred payments, it would be a huge help in this crisis. Our oil import bill is around $12 billion even if we get $4-5 billion on deferred payments, it would be a huge help.”

There is a downside to this expected deal on sending troops to Saudi Arabia: foreign policy experts say that this decision will reinforce the already persisting distrust between Pakistan and its strategically important neighbour, Iran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a regional rivalry and there is a dreadful sectarian dimension to this rivalry.

Foreign policy expert, Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi says that Iranians believe that Pakistan has frozen its economic relations with Iran. “Right now Iranians are desperately seeking economic and financial ties with regional countries… they will go wherever they find the possibility of financial benefit.”

He opined that sending troops under an old arrangement would not become a big factor in deterioration of relations with Iran. However, “it can reinforce the mistrust,” he adds.

This time around Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa had to undertake hectic diplomatic activity to mitigate the effects of this decision. He met Iranian and Qatari ambassadors to take them into confidence about the decision before the army formally announced it.

There is an interesting contrast between what happened in 2015 (when request for deployment came for the first time) and now: In 2015 Pakistani military joined hands with the parliament to say no to their foreign benefactors on an issue that was vital to their security. Now the military is hobnobbing with their foreign friends and saying no to the parliament, which many in the parliament consider vital to the internal security of the country, primarily because of its sectarian dimensions.

A senior official interviewed for this story told this scribe that Pakistan needs Saudi Arabia on two counts: First Pakistan is on a bumpy road in its relations with Washington and Saudis can probably intervene to arrest the deterioration in this relationship, and secondly, in case of worst case scenario if Pakistan faces a default on its international financial obligations in coming months, Saudis can probably come to their rescue.

Both Senate and National Assembly specifically discussed the issue of sending troops to Saudi Arabia after the ISPR announcement in this regard. Parliamentarians specifically expressed apprehension about the Pakistani army troops taking part in the Yemen conflict on the border of Saudi Arabia.

PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar said if the troops were deployed along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border, they could soon get sucked into quagmire under the doctrine of hot pursuit. “It will be disastrous if, God forbid, it really happens. The deliberately nuanced FO statements condemning the Houthi missile attacks as a threat to the Kingdom and the Holy mosques also seem aimed at justifying sending of Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia for active engagement in the conflict.”

PPP MNA Dr Nafisa Shah said that Pakistani forces are being sent to Saudi Arabia after the COAS visit of Saudi Arabia. She said the National Assembly unanimously approved a resolution that Pakistan Army will not become part of any internal wars of the Middle East, especially Yemen.

Dr Shireen Mazari, a PTI MNA, asked the government to explain to the parliament the role Pakistani troops will be playing in Saudi Arabia, “What will be their role? What will be their duties.”

Umer Farooq

Umer Farooq is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He specializes in writing on politics, foreign policy and security issues.

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