Prospects that Pakistan would join the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen appeared to be evaporating Friday amid widespread concern that taking sides in what’s perceived as a power struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran could fuel Pakistan’s already dangerous levels of sectarian violence.
Opposition party leaders and influential commentators reacted with deep suspicion to the government’s announcement Thursday that it was considering a Saudi request to support the campaign.
Under sharp questioning Friday in Parliament, Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Mohammed Asif, said that while a decision on a Saudi request for assistance formally has been deferred until after an Arab League summit this weekend, it likely will be turned down.
“We will not take part in any conflict that could result in differences in the Muslim world, causing fault lines present in Pakistan to be disturbed, the aggravation of which would have to be borne by Pakistan,” he told Parliament.
Saudi Arabia is Pakistan’s closest ally, along with China, which is opposed to the Yemen campaign. Pakistan shares a long western border with Iran, with which it has a cordial if lukewarm relationship.
Saudi King Salman asked Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for assistance in the campaign, and it seemed likely, given that in the 1980s, Pakistan deployed thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to avert the threat of a retaliatory Iranian attack during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, when the Saudis and the Gulf states backed Iraq. The Saudi-owned Arabic-language satellite channel Al Arabiya on Thursday broadcast a graphic indicating Pakistan would provide naval support to the Saudi-led air campaign.
But that proposition raised worries that participating in the Yemen campaign would fuel already dangerous levels of violence between the country’s majority Sunni community and the sizable Shiite minority, which comprises 23 percent of Pakistan’s estimated population of 200 million people. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative.
“‘Yes’ to Saudi will stoke sectarian and terrorist fires like never before,” said Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad think tank.
“It will be equal to losing all gains” of Pakistan’s ongoing counterterrorism campaigns, launched last June, in the northwest tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan and the southern city of Karachi, said Gul, who has written several books on Pakistan’s security situation.
The center reported earlier in March that 7,650 Pakistanis died in political violence in 2014, including 440 who were killed in sectarian violence. More than half of those were Shiites.
Pakistan’s social media networks were abuzz with opposition to any participation in the Yemen conflict – the top Twitter trends were #StopWarsInMuslimWorld, #BeUnitedMuslims and #Yemen.
Opposition to joining the anti-Houthi alliance came from political parties across the ideological spectrum, including some Sunni religious political parties closely associated with Saudi Arabia.
Imran Khan, leader of the reformist Movement for Justice Party, warned the government against joining “the U.S.-Saudi alliance” to fight in Yemen.
“We already have a huge sectarian issue in Pakistan, and our country has suffered enough in the last 10 years,” Khan said.
Asif said the only commitment given to the Saudis by Pakistan was to come to their defense in the event its territorial integrity came under threat, an implausible scenario in the context of the Yemen campaign.