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Murky Saudi Relationship Leaves Pakistan Conflicted On Yemen Conflict

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been engaged in an awkward diplomatic dance this month. The Saudis want Pakistani military support for the fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The two countries are old allies, and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has especially close ties to the Saudis. He spent part of his exile in the country. But even though the prime minister controls the armed forces in Pakistan, Sharif has said he would leave the decision on aiding the Saudi campaign to parliament. And on Friday, the Pakistan Parliament voted unanimously to remain neutral. To help us make sense of this, we're turning to Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute. He says the Pakistani-Saudi Arabia relationship goes back decades to another conflict with Houthi rebels.

ARIF RAFIQ: In 1969, Pakistani pilots participated in the Saudi offensive inside Yemen to target Houthi rebels, to subdue them and secure the southern border of Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, Pakistan sent about 15,000 troops to secure Saudi Arabia from internal threats. The Saudis have also come to the aid of Pakistan in times of need. And, you know, in 1998, when Pakistan conducted nuclear tests and was subject to international sanctions, the Saudis gave Pakistan around 500,000 barrels of oil at no cost. And that was to buttress the Pakistani economy, which is in a freefall.

RATH: You and others have written about the possibility of dire consequences for Pakistan if they do join in militarily with Saudi Arabia in the war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. How could things go badly for Pakistan if they were to do that?

RAFIQ: Well, you know, I think the parliamentary opposition to overt action inside Yemen is indicative of on-the-ground sentiment inside the country. Since 9-11, approximately 80,000 Pakistanis have been killed as a result of terrorist violence. So the average Pakistani is cognizant of the potential for sectarian tensions inside the country to be exacerbated by overt involvement in the Yemen conflict, which has sectarian overtones. They're very reluctant to participate in a war that not only has very limited relevance to their own national security interests, but could result in the country being the playground for yet another proxy war.

RATH: In the past, it seems that Pakistan has always been there for Saudi Arabia for what they've asked. What's different now?

RAFIQ: The power dynamics in Pakistan have changed in the past decade. While the military is definitely in the driving seat in terms of forming national security policy, there is a robust medium that is controlled to some extent by the state and more so by the military, but it's still quite provocative and vocal. There's also a parliament that is outspoken when it wants to be, and the country is just far more diverse.

RATH: It's easier to get a straight yes when you're dealing with a military dictator.

RAFIQ: Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely is. And in quasi-democratic Pakistan, it's much more difficult to get these kind of instant yeses.

RATH: Arif, how significant do you see this - that the parliament is, in this case, saying no to the military?

RAFIQ: I'm not sure if they're saying no to the military. And I think the military itself is conflicted, and it has no good options. And allowing the parliament to voice itself also allows it to give an excuse to the Saudis or deflect pressure and say that we are facing this blowback at home - or potential blowback at home - from overtly sent with your country in this Yemen war. And so that's going to mitigate our ability to cooperate with you there, but we're on your side when it comes to defending Saudi territory. There is genuine concern in Pakistan about involving itself in a war that really doesn't have any relevance to its own national security interests and could, in fact, jeopardize the country's security far more than benefit it in any sort of hypothetical situation.

RATH: Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute. Arif, thank you.

RAFIQ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.