Pakistan is revealing few details about its planned troop deployment to Saudi Arabia. But on Monday, defence minister Khurram Dastgir-Khan indicated the 1,000-odd soldiers would not get involved in Yemen’s civil war.
‘The contingent, once deputed in Saudi Arabia, will perform its training and advisory mission while remaining within the geographical boundaries of the kingdom,’ he told the Pakistan Senate.
This is in line with the Pakistan military’s own statement which said troops would ‘not be employed outside KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)’.
There are already 1,600 Pakistani soldiers in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan’s armed forces have undertaken training and other missions in Arab monarchies for decades. In 1970 Brigadier-General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was part of the Jordanian army’s ‘Black September’ crackdown on Palestinian militants. Pakistan’s military relationship with Saudi Arabia has been especially close. In 1969, Pakistan Air Force pilots reportedly flew Saudi jets that ‘repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border in 1969.’ Through the 1970s and ‘80s, Pakistan typically stationed about 15,000 troops in the kingdom. In 1990, Pakistan joined the coalition opposing Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, though it was not involved in any combat operations.
Saudi Arabia has, in turn, been Pakistan’s chief patron from the Arab world. When Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff planned to conduct nuclear tests in 1998 in response to India’s own tests, ‘the Saudis promised 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help the Pakistanis cope with the economic sanctions that might be triggered’.
The Pakistan-Saudi relationship was also buttressed a confluence of strategic interests. Both countries were wary of Iran, both supported the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, and later backed the Taliban.
The two countries are not as close today. There are fewer compelling interests bringing them together. Pakistan has remained neutral in the Saudi-Qatar spat and has sought to improve relations with Iran even as the Saudis and Iranians engage in a violent proxy war across the region. The Saudis have also turned against the Taliban to stymie Qatar’s mediation efforts with the government in Kabul. Lastly, Saudi Arabia increasingly views India as an important economic partner, one to be wooed and occasionally humoured.
In April 2015, Pakistan’s parliament passed a joint resolution declaring Pakistani troops could only be deployed to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom’s territorial integrity. The resolution was a clear rejection of Riyadh’s attempt to get Pakistan involved in Yemen’s civil war, a conflict that has pitted Saudi- and Iranian-backed forces against each other.
News of the latest deployment has sparked worries in Pakistan that its soldiers might get drawn into the fighting in Yemen, though some are sceptical of these concerns. A little more transparency might clear the air.