M Ziauddin

Monday, April 27, 2015 – PAKISTAN has finally succeeded in keeping itself from being sucked into the Yemen imbroglio. The last visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif on April 24, 2015 to Riyadh seems to have done the job. The Prime Minister, during this visit, conclusively reassured the Kingdom that if the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia was threatened, Pakistan would stand shoulder to shoulder with our Saudi brothers. Pakistan also made it very clear that a resolution passed by a joint sitting of parliament also carried the same message, ‘but some misunderstandings were created about it.’ The Prime Minister who was talking to media in London on his way back from Saudi Arabia very wisely did not name the irresponsible quarters that had tried to create the misunderstandings.

The narrow purpose of these irresponsible elements to present the joint Parliament resolution as an attempt by the elected representatives of Pakistan to malign the Saudis and prevent their government from coming to the rescue of Kingdom in its hour of crisis was to drive a permanent wedge between Pakistan and a country which had never refused to come to our rescue with moral, monetary, political and diplomatic help in our hour of crisis.

Now that the misunderstandings have been cleared, Pakistanis have heaved a deep sigh of relief. There are about three million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Also, Pakistan is highly obliged to Saudi Arabia for the 1.5 billion dollars it had gifted to Pakistan recently for helping us keep our rupee from collapsing completely. It is not hard to imagine what would have happened to the Pakistanis working in these countries and to the huge monetary assistance extended to us only last year if the misunderstanding had persisted. Since the start of the Yemen crisis Pakistan has been advising the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia to seek peaceful means to resolve what, in fact, was a civil war within Yemen and which posed no threat to the territorial integrity of any Arab or Gulf country. However, the Arab coalition went ahead with its bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels that had forced the Yemeni President Hadi to flee his country and seek sanctuary in Riyadh.

From now on Saudi Arabia will take Pakistan into confidence while strategising its next move with regard to Yemen. It has promised on executing all future plans regarding the Yemen situation after consulting with Pakistan. And Pakistan on its part has abandoned its stance of remaining neutral on the Yemen issue. And more importantly during the visit Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met the beleaguered president of Yemen and promised him all political, diplomatic and political help in his efforts to return to his seat of power in Yemen. And crucially the two also talked about Pakistani armed forces role in Yemen after Hadi is restored,

Already the poorest country in the Middle East, groaning under soaring unemployment, dwindling oil and water reserves and home to the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda, now Yemen is being torn apart by war of many sides. The civil war is being waged between Houthis of North Yemen against the break- away faction of the national Army loyal to President Hadi. The other faction of the Army was fighting on the side of the Houthis to create conditions for the return to power of former president Saleh who had ruled the country for more than three decades.

The most worrying thing for Saudi Arabia in the immediate context was the security of its ships carrying oil which passed through the narrow gulf—Bab-i-Mandeb— from across Aden, in the South which was under serious threat from Houthis. Last week when troops loyal to President Hadi succeeded in resisting the onslaught of Houthis against Aden, the Saudi led month-long bombing campaign was stopped and believing that it had broken the back of the rebels the Saudi military leadership announced that it had achieved its military goals therefore it was ending what was called the Decisive Strom and initiating a new operation called Restoring Hope focusing on a political solution in Yemen and on counter-terrorism at home. Iran welcomed the end of airstrikes as a step forward. The UN announced its own peace initiative which Pakistan immediately backed. And the US invited Iran to join world efforts to resolve the Yemen crisis through peaceful means. However, within days the Saudi-led coalition resumed its bombing campaign when it felt that Aden was still under serious threat and that the Houthis were on the verge of taking control of the city.

The most dangerous outcome of the Yemen crisis has been the regrouping of Al-Qaeda whose fighters had gone underground because of the now discontinued drone attacks by the US and also because of the relentless attacks on Al-Qaeda activists by the Houthis. Now with the Houthis under attack from the bombing campaign and the discontinuation of the drone attacks, the Al-Qaeda has re-emerged in Yemen with renewed vigour and space is also being created in this poorest of the Arab countries for the Islamic State to establish its presence. One cannot rule out the possibility, therefore, that rather than facing any serious threat from the Houthis, the Saudi Kingdom in the near future would have to contend with the menace of Al-Qaeda and the IS knocking at its doors. The Saudis in their own self interest and to get the support of anti-Iran forces, both Arab and non-Arab have tried to give a sectarian angle to the Yemeni civil war. The Houthi rebels are Zaidi Shias, representing about a third of the population. The Saudis are starting to think they’re getting encircled by proxies of Iran wherever they look: in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen. But in fact the Houthis are said to largely owe their military success to someone much closer to home.

They are said to have formed an alliance of convenience, a sort of pact with the devil, with the very man who tried to bomb them out of existence five years ago. Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled first North Yemen, then a unified Yemen, for 35 years, until he was forced out of power by the Arab Spring protests. He wants to return to his ‘throne’ in Yemen. Whole units of the Republican Guard are said to have remained loyal to him. President Hadi who replaced him, an elderly, genial southerner, is being seen as a loser in this struggle for the ‘throne’.

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