On March 26, Saudi Arabia began a blitz of airstrikes on the Houthis targets in Yemen. The airstrikes were a culmination of festering tensions between the two countries over balancing the tangled interests of different ethnic and religious groups and restoring legitimacy of the Saudi-backed central government of Mansour Hadi in the wake of the ouster of the Yemeni’s long-serving president Abdel Saleh.
The airstrikes were reportedly in response to a request from the beleaguered president Mansour Hadi who had fled to Aden from the capital Sana after having been ousted by the Houthis in January 2015. Other trigger factor was Saudi perception of a spillover of the Houthis’ growing political power into Saudi Arabia which inhabits a large Shia population (Houthis’ stronghold is in the north which borders Saudi Arabia).
Besides rearranging the internal politics of Yemen in favour of Saudi-backed Hadi government, Saudi Arabia was also actuated by the larger aim of containing the growing influence of Iran.
The timing of the Saudi intervention is also significant. It has come at a time when Iran is inching closer to a deal on nuclear weapons with the major world powers. This analysis sees Saudi intervention as a powerful signal to the US and other major powers not to lean Iran’s way when it is already gaining ground in Syria and Iraq where its interests merge with the US interests.
The formation of Saudi-led Arab coalition — with some non-Arab countries corralled in — is also a long-term response to this development. These developments feed into the narrative of the great Shia-Sunni antagonism shaping up in the Middle East. Yet most observers have downplayed the hype of Saudi intervention as being seen as larger the Shia-Sunni conflict on the basis that Iranian role in the rise of the Houthis’ is not as large and well-thought out as it is being made out to be.
The Houthi movement is an indigenous movement which has grown out of specific tribal, religious and ethnic politics of Yemen. The Houthis, Zaidi Shias, a variant of Shia Islam, have long ruled the northern part of Yemen backed by Saudi Arabia until the late 1960s. However, after the unification of Yemen, in 1990, the influence of Zaidi Shias declined. The rise of the Houthis in recent years is one response to this. (see my last article ) (To be hyperlinked)
The Saudi intervention marks a new high in regional tensions. The intervention highlights two facets of the rapidly changing situation in the region. One, Saudi Arabia is angling to take over the task of Arab coalition building which was previously reserved for the US. Two, Egypt has been pitched back at the heart of the Arab-Sunni block. This is evidenced in an immense largess being bestowed on Egypt for its leading role in the emerging anti-Iran Arab coalition. Three, with the formation of the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen, the Arab League has declared itself essentially a Sunni formation. This has implication not only for Shia and other religious minorities in Arab countries but also for the regional Shia-Sunni divide.
In its emergency meeting held in Egypt, the Arab League also agreed to the idea of putting together a joint Arab force to deal with the worsening situation in Yemen for the short term and in other Iran-influenced spots such as Syria and Iraq for the long term. As in the past, the idea of a joint Arab force was mooted by Egypt which was at the centre of such pan-Arab initiatives in the 1960s and 70.While the joint Arab force is being put together, Pakistan has been asked to contribute its troops to the Saudi military efforts in Yemen.
There are strong indications that if Saudi Arabia does not get an outcome favourable to its interests through airstrikes; the Saudi-led military coalition may land troops on the Yemeni soil. For this purpose Saudi Arabia has sought help from Arab countries in air support and ground troops.
While Turkey has extended only political and diplomatic support, Pakistan stands ready to commit its troops to the Saudi military invasion. In consequence of the Saudi request, the Yemen crisis has reached every home in Pakistan, so heightened is the concern due to the trapped Pakistanis in Yemen and its potential blowback on Sunni-Shia harmony in the country.
The concern has been further heightened by the government’s forked tongue statements on this emotive issue. The prime minister has declared that Pakistan is ready to shoulder the burden of preserving Saudi integrity. There are strong suspicions abroad that the Pakistani troops may already be engaged in the Saudi-led intervention or on the cusp of being committed and dispatched.
These suspicions have been further fanned by the Western and Arab media reports in the past week. While these reports have been denied by the Pakistani authorities, Pakistan’s previous history of deep military engagement with the Saudi government does not inspire confidence in the government statements of taking the nation into confidence before making the final decision (Pakistan aligned with Saudi Arabia in its early involvement in Yemen in the 1960s apart from Pakistan troop’s deployment in Saudi Arabia during the first invasion of Iraq and afterwards).
Moreover, the rentier and clientalist nature of the Pakistan state does not inspire the possibility of Pakistani ruling establishment staying neutral in this inter-Arab conflict. Inside Pakistan, however, the chorus of opposition to such a course of action is growing. Most political parties are opposed to Pakistan’s entanglement in an essentially Arab conflict. This opposition stems from two domestic concerns. One, Pakistan army is already heavily stretched out inside the country on multiple fronts. Second, our involvement, apart from further polarising Shia-Sunni divide in the country, would send a hostile signal to Iran which borders the restive province of Balochistan.
Plainly put, Pakistan cannot afford to activate yet another border hostility with another globally influential neighbour when most of our borders are already inflamed.
Most importantly, Yemen is a patchwork of complex ethnic, religious and regional tangles which boggle the minds of even the best of Arab strategists in the world. For Pakistan to walk into this fiendishly complex inferno would trap the country in a long term commitment from which the country would find it difficult to extricate. The fallout from such an ill-advised engagement can only lead to further destabilisation of the country.