Pakistan’s soft-spoken prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is in a difficult bind as his Parliament debates how to respond to Saudi Arabia’s request that it send troops, warplanes and naval vessels to join the Arab coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen: He’s really not in a position to say no.
That’s because he owes his career path, business interests and possibly his life to Saudi Arabia’s royal family, say analysts who’ve followed Sharif’s 34-year political career.
“Sharif would be wise to heed the advice of Don Vito Corleone, who said in ‘The Godfather,’ ‘A refusal is not the act of a friend,’ ” said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, an adviser on political and strategic risk in the Middle East and South Asia.
“Alienating the Saudis would deny Sharif a fallback operation if relations with Washington or the Pakistani military sour. His challenge is to minimally satisfy the needs of the Saudis without causing more problems for himself at home or in the region.”
Opinion in Parliament and among Pakistan’s 30 million Internet users has been overwhelmingly opposed to the Pakistani military’s taking part in Saudi-led combat operations in Yemen, though there’s a consensus that Pakistan should intervene if Saudi territory is threatened.
Sharif has refused to elaborate on the details of the Saudi request, fueling suspicions among opposition deputies that the government is manipulating an uninformed Parliament to rubber-stamp a decision that’s already been made.
Sharif, who under Pakistan’s Constitution doesn’t need Parliament’s permission to dispatch troops, has responded coolly, fending off the opposition’s accusations with a wave of the hand and declaring he’s in no hurry to make a decision and will await the results of a joint diplomatic initiative launched last week with Turkey to find a negotiated solution to the Yemen crisis.
Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, which is backing the Houthis, met Thursday with Sharif and the Pakistani army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif – who’s not related to the prime minister – to discuss ways to bring about a cease-fire in Yemen.
Since the late 1980s, Sharif has been Saudi Arabia’s preferred Pakistani prime minister, because the conservative Saudi regime couldn’t palate the concept of a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as the head of a Muslim government, or the subsequent election as president of her Shiite Muslim but secular widower, Asif Ali Zardari, according to the analysts and leaked U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.
As is customary among Muslim leaders, Bhutto made a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites, in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, to offer prayers of thanks for her victory in Pakistan’s 1988 general election, the first after 11 years of military rule by Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who’d died in a plane crash earlier that year.
As the new prime minister of Pakistan, a staunch Saudi ally, Bhutto assumed she’d be invited for an audience with King Fahd bin Abdulaziz.
“But King Fahd was reluctant to receive her. The meeting eventually took place, but only after a lot of messaging between Pakistani diplomats and the Saudi government,” said Javed Siddique, editor-in-chief of Nawa-i-Waqt, an Urdu-language daily newspaper politically aligned with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
“From then on, it was patently obvious they didn’t like her, or want her in power.”
In stark contrast, the Saudi royals have ridden to Sharif’s rescue many times and he’s viewed in Riyadh as “Saudi’s man in Pakistan,” as the Saudi tycoon Prince al Waleed bin Talal has said.
When the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan in May 1998 after a Sharif-led government exchanged tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests with its neighboring enemy, India, the Saudis stepped in with free supplies of crude oil, to the tune of 50,000 barrels per day. The help almost certainly staved off bankruptcy for the country.
The Saudis stepped in again when Sharif was overthrown in October 1999 by then-army Chief of Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf and charged with attempted murder. Conviction could have meant death or life in prison, but the Saudis dispatched former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to broker a deal under which Sharif was allowed to leave Pakistan in December 2000 on the condition that he live in exile in Saudi Arabia and not attempt a political comeback for 10 years.
In return for Musharraf’s agreement, the Saudis provided his administration with crude oil on a deferred-payment basis. That deal lasted until the United State lifted the sanctions after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, when Pakistan joined the U.S. coalition fighting al Qaida.
Sharif was allowed home in November 2007 after Musharraf scheduled a general election for February 2008.
Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan in December 2007, generating a massive sympathy wave for her Pakistan Peoples Party. Unhappy with the prospect of its impending victory, the Saudis pumped money into the election campaign of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Musharraf’s national security adviser, Tariq Aziz, told U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson in February 2008, according to a leaked State Department cable published by WikiLeaks.
Sharif’s special relationship with the Saudi royals was again highlighted after he returned to the prime minister’s post after elections in May 2013. Faced with a destabilizing run on the rupee, he reached out to Riyadh for help and in March 2014 received a $1.5 billion interest-free loan to shore up Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves.
Similarly, when Sharif traveled to Riyadh early last month to meet the newly invested Saudi monarch, he was met at the airport by King Salman himself, a remarkable departure from protocol.
Siddique, the Pakistani newspaper editor, said Sharif’s second home was still Jeddah, a bustling Saudi commercial hub on the Red Sea, where his elder son, Hussain Nawaz, runs a steel business with Saudi partners thought to be members of the royal family. The younger son, Hassan Nawaz, is based in London, where he runs a construction business, also in partnership with the Saudi royals, Siddique said.
“Sharif has to repay the Saudis for saving him, for the royal hospitality they’ve extended to him and his family, and for the financial bailouts,” Siddique said.
Those obligations might not prevent Sharif from being creative with how he says yes to the Saudis. He could redeploy the 1,000 or so Pakistani commandos already in Saudi Arabia, tasking them to train Saudi forces in counterterrorist operations. He could also send them to conduct joint operations to protect Mecca and Medina.
Any of those options would be acceptable, even if Parliament, where Sharif’s party holds a majority, were to say it didn’t want to help Saudi Arabia, Siddique said.
“All would be sell-able to the Pakistani public,” he said.