Pakistan and Gulf Security: Mixed Signals

In the ongoing Yemeni crisis, Pakistan is faced with a strange dilemma. On one side is Saudi Arabia which had always been forthcoming with aid to Pakistan in times of crisis. During the 1965 and 1971 wars, when Pakistan was fighting for its very survival against India, Saudi Arabia extended moral, political, and financial support to such an extent that it is hard to find a comparable example in the history of nations. The financial help subsequently extended by Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to deal with the Afghanistan crisis was so much that it is difficult to overstate. 

On the other side in the Yemeni crisis, another Muslim country. So, on the face of it, the choice should have been easy for Pakistan: join the Saudi-led military coalition. However, that was not the case. The Parliament reached a consensus to stay out of the conflict in Yemen and called on Pakistan to remain neutral to ensure a continued diplomatic role. 

While Pakistan has traditionally followed a policy of not joining in the military options against any other Muslim country, this neutrality potentially can create some strains in the Saudi/GCC-Pakistan relationship. 

Pakistan’s contiguity to the Gulf endows it with a strategic significance that can hardly be overemphasized. Pakistan has a 500-mile-long coastline along the Arabian Sea merging with the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Gulf approaches. It also has a common border stretching over 350 miles with Iran. Pakistan has long standing political, cultural, and economic relations with all Gulf states. These factors places Pakistan in a position where it cannot remain unaffected by developments in this region.

History reminds us that Pakistan was directly affected by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Besides the oil price hike, which exerted tremendous pressure on its economy, there were other factors which further compounded the problem. A large Pakistani labor force was rendered jobless, which theretofore was a considerable source of foreign revenue. The invasion entailed an enormous financial burden on Pakistan to transport its workers home and provide them alternative jobs. Besides the economic impact, there also was a cultural shock from this Iraqi aggression which forced Pakistan to immediately condemn Baghdad’s actions. Pakistan demanded immediate withdrawal by Iraq and restoration of the sovereign status of Kuwait. It also contributed significantly to the multinational force in Saudi Arabia by sending a contingent of 11,000 troops, tasked with protecting religious sites in Saudi Arabia.

Today, the ongoing conflict in Yemen will affect Pakistan, even if it is not directly involved. Pakistan’s stakes in Gulf stability therefore, are tremendous. A policy of non-interference could deprive Pakistan of the economic, trade and other benefits now accruing from Gulf-Pakistan state linkages. The very physical proximity makes it imperative for Pakistan to be extremely vigilant regarding developments in the Gulf. 

Pakistan’s physical location, religious affinities, and historical linkage with the region make it compelling for Islamabad’s policymakers to remain actively involved in the security of the region. These realities – in theory- make Pakistan’s participation in Gulf Security virtually unavoidable.

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