Yemen’s long shadow

The conflict has made Pakistan feel more divided at home.

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published: April 24, 2015 12:17 am
Most critics of a ‘willing’ Nawaz Sharif government were given pause when columnists started writing about how an exodus of Pakistani workers from the Gulf, most of them unskilled and semi-skilled, could destabilise Pakistan and cause the government to fall. Most critics of a ‘willing’ Nawaz Sharif government were given pause when columnists started writing about how an exodus of Pakistani workers from the Gulf, most of them unskilled and semi-skilled, could destabilise Pakistan and cause the government to fall.

Pakistan was in two minds over going to the aid of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the Yemen war, its government swearing allegiance but parliament ordaining “neutrality”. Then the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son, who heads the rebel troops, thus clearly siding with Saudi Arabia and its Arab League friends. It imposed a global asset freeze and travel ban on Abdul Malik al-Houthi and Ahmed Saleh. It demanded that the Houthis withdraw from areas they had seized, including the capital, Sanaa, and “resume negotiations on the democratic transition begun in 2011, when Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over power to [the pro-Saudi] Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi following mass protests”.

Islamabad was relieved and supported the resolution. But Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who is related to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, went ahead and revealed something that was not generally known. He said in a briefing in Washington that, in 1982, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had signed a military protocol which entitled the kingdom to seek Pakistani troops. He disarmed reporters who had pointed out that remittances from expat Pakistanis — “$13.3 billion in [the] last nine months” — could be jeopardised if the GCC states decided to expel them. A UAE minister had warned Pakistan that if it didn’t come to help in the Yemen war it would “pay a heavy price”. On April 21, the Arab bombing of Yemen Houthis came to a halt.

People in Pakistan obviously didn’t know about the “defence protocol” because a question had been raised about it in the joint session of parliament in March, with members demanding to know the details of such an agreement, “if it existed”.

It is not possible to glean from Dar’s comment whether the “protocol” was signed with Saudi Arabia or with the GCC, newly formed in 1981 in response to the “Iranian threat”. It is quite possible that Pakistan had agreed, under pressure some say, to provide “military teeth” to the GCC. This happened under the military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, who was close to the Arabs, having served as a military attaché in the region.

While clearly an ally of Saudi Arabia, Zia was inclined to be neutral in the developing Iran-Arab confrontation. There were rumours in Pakistan in 1982 that the GCC states had threatened to expel all Pakistani workers if the country refused to “lend military teeth” to the newly formed grouping. There is little on record because of the extreme caution exercised by the rulers of the UAE. Most books on the Gulf states discuss the GCC as a harmless organisation, but a clearer indication of what was at stake is indicated by Christopher M. Davidson in his book, The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival (2005). According to him, the plan for an anti-Iran axis existed until 2001: “Until September 11, 2001, many of the strongly anti-Iranian emirates had favoured a ‘Sunni axis’, comprising the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban, in an effort to curb potential Shia expansion.” The author added a footnote that his information had come from “personal interviews, undisclosed locations, 2003”.

Most critics of a “willing” Nawaz Sharif government were given pause when columnists started writing about how an exodus of Pakistani workers from the Gulf, most of them unskilled and semi-skilled, could destabilise Pakistan and cause the government to fall. Over the past decade, power outages have caused elected governments to become unpopular. Electricity in Pakistan, mostly produced from oil, has not kept pace with consumption. Leading journalist and TV personality Najam Sethi wrote in The Friday Times: “Over 3 million Pakistanis work in these countries and remit over $11 billion a year to sustain nearly 30 million Pakistanis across the country. If these workers and their hard-earned monies were to be sanctioned by their hosts, angry Pakistanis would spill over into the streets against both the Arabs and their Pakistani ruling-class brothers. The economy would face a balance of payments crisis and the rupee would slide in parallel with forex reserves. Inflation would rise, hardship would follow and there would be fresh calls and agitation from the political parties for the ouster of the Sharif regime. Indeed, the very political parties that are insisting that Mr Sharif should refuse troops to the Saudis and maintain ‘neutrality’ would be the first ones to demand his resignation when such a policy leads to an angry and hurtful response from the Saudis and Gulf sheikhs.”

Economist Sakib Sherani cautiously warned in Dawn: “There is a downside to the rising importance of this source of inflow. With worker remittances the equivalent of over 6 per cent of GDP, any disruption to the flow can have serious repercussions for the economy. This vulnerability is starkly demonstrated in the uncomfortable position Pakistan finds itself in with respect to the request for military help by Saudi Arabia in its offensive against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. Worker remittances from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, amount to two-thirds of the total. If the potential ire of these countries is translated to the Pakistani emigrant workers, the pain of adopting ‘neutrality’ could be serious.”

India too gets its remittances through money transfers from non-resident Indians (NRIs) employed outside the country to family, friends or relatives. It is the world’s leading receiver of remittances, claiming more than 12 per cent of the global total in 2007. Remittances to India stood at $67.6 billion in 2012-13, accounting for over 4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

States do have “economic leverage” over other states, but it is especially so in Pakistan, with a prime minister who was saved from spending his life in jail by Saudi intervention, which the Pakistani army couldn’t ignore. Even at the UNSC, China and Russia could have opposed the pro-Saudi resolution. But they didn’t.

As Vali Nasr wrote in his book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, “China’s trade… with Saudi Arabia has grown from $4 billion in 2001 to $50 billion in 2011; and with Egypt from less than a billion in 2001 to $9 billion in 2011. Since 2006 China has been exporting more to the Middle East than the US does, and the same is true for imports since 2009. In 2010, Chinese exports to the region were close to double that of the US (China is now the largest exporter to the region), and Chinese direct foreign investment took off, leaving America far behind: 30 per cent of China’s global contracts in that year were with Arab enterprises.”

Now that the Yemen war has gone from combat to consultative negotiation under the UN, Pakistan will feel less divided at home, between the Saudi-assisted Wahhabi and Deobandi clerics and the hunted Shia community, which fears another bout of “relocated” sectarian war. The state in Pakistan can disarm Arab suspicion of its loyalty but far more difficult will be the task of “delinking” from the Wahhabi and Deobandi non-state actors, now allied with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who have caused disturbance in Pakistan’s neighbouring states.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.

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