Pakistani troops in Saudi Arabia: purposes & cross purposes

Iqbal Khan

Prospect of an enlarged Pakistani military deployment to Saudi Arabia had been under discussion for some time. Traditionally, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy close cooperation in diverse fields inclusive of defence cooperation. Armed forces of both countries regularly conduct military exercises; defence officials often travel to each other’s county and share their experiences and expertise. However, ISPR’s announcement on February 15 that “Pakistan is sending a ‘contingent of troops’ to Saudi Arabia came as a surprise to many; some viewed it as an inevitable action to fulfil its bilateral treaty obligations-though belated.

The official word about the decision came out after a meeting between Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa and Saudi Ambassador at General Headquarters. The announcement also came just a day after Army Chief had met with the Iranian ambassador. Reportedly, Pakistan also contacted Turkey and Qatar ahead of the announcement. Notwithstanding, these countries would continue to see it from their respective Saudi prism.

A section in Pakistani media has called the decision of additional deployment a mystery. Troops are being sent on a “training and advise mission” as part of ongoing “bilateral security cooperation”, defence minister strived to explain. His statement emphasized that the troops would not be deployed outside Saudi Arabia. Informed analysts opine that these troops are likely to protect the core Saudi royal family that feels vulnerable after the recent large-scale purge within the extended royalty. “The Saudis may think there is an internal issue – they can’t trust their [own] guys, so they are getting the Pakistanis,” Kamal Alam, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Middle East Eye.

Besides others, ISPR’s announcement also caught the parliament off-guard., politicians demanded a debate during which defence minister remained elusive with regard to the purpose of sending the contingent. Known for his anti-military leaning, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani remarked: “I’m sorry. The statement is inadequate.” He even threatened defence minister with “contempt of parliament” after he refused to provide further details. Chairman noted that parliament learned of the deployment “through a press release,” which was an insult by the executive branch to the legislature. Saudi Arabia has been demanding the deployment of Pakistani troops since the start of the Yemen conflict in 2015, despite Pakistan’s parliament adopting a resolution declaring Islamabad’s “neutrality” in the conflict. Details about what they will do and why they are being dispatched now remain murky.

“These or troops already there will not be employed outside KSA. Pakistan Army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other GCC /regional countries,” ISPR said. Statement did not provide the exact number of troops being sent. However, the army’s emphasis on sending the troops as part of ‘bilateral security pact’ is apparently to avoid any controversy since Pakistan is also part of the Saudi-led 41 nation counter terrorism alliance. Former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif is heading the military alliance, which Saudis insist is only meant to fight terrorism. However, Iran considers it as an anti-Iran and anti-Shia alliance. Pakistan had joined the grouping on a precondition that it would not become part of any initiative that targets any other Muslim country.

In regional context, Pakistan has serious reservations about Indian activities on Iranian soil. During President Hassan Rouhani’s trip to Pakistan, Army Chief had taken up the matter with him. Soon after, Indian Navy Commander Kulbhushan Jadev, was arrested as he entered Pakistan from Iran. Recently Iran has given operational control of its Chabahar port to India.

It is not the first time that Pakistan soldiers are deployed on Saudi territory, such an eventuality was envisioned during early 1970s. King Faisal and Prime Minister Z A Bhutto had formalised it through a treaty. Ever since, at least a notional contingent of Pakistan military has remained in Saudi Arabia to keep the treaty active. Pakistan military’s active engagement in KSA started when it supplemented Saudi effort in evicting fundamentalists who had seized Haram Sharif (Grand Mosque) in Makkah in 1979. First large-scale deployment took place in 1982, when King Fahd requested President General Zia ul-Haq to deploy a division size force, structured around an armoured brigade. It served as “an elite fighting force to defend the monarchy from any foe at home or abroad,” opined Bruce Riedel. He is of the view that the new contingent will work as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s personal guard force, in unison with royal bodyguards. The unit “will be loyal to him and Pakistan just in case his enemies move to oust and/or kill him,” Riedel said. Proposition is convincing.

New deployment is a sensitive matter as Pakistan is striving to maintain a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both these countries heavily fund their respective version of Islam which has heightened the sectarian tensions in Pakistan. Pakistan is just one of the play territories for Saudi-Iran global proxy war. Presumably, at government level, Pakistani has approached both countries to choke such funding, though with little success.

Deployment is taking place amid intensifying counterattacks by Houthi fighters and increased use of ballistic missiles targeting Saudi cities including Riyadh. Yemen conflict has caught the Saudis by their throat, degenerating into an open-ended stalemate. Induction of Pakistani troops in Yemen theatre is not likely to tilt the balance in Saudi favour. However, even a rumour of such happening would create a serious problem in Pakistan. And no matter what the actual usage of Pakistani contingent is, fictional stories would soon start doing rounds about Pakistan military’s involvement in Yemen crisis, the colourful speculations would continue and become another pressure point for sectarian heat-indeed, interesting times ahead!

Posted in