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Pakistan's Dilemma: Should It Assist Saudi Arabia In Yemen Operation?


Here's a dilemma you might've faced in your own life. Your best friend asks for a favor, but it's not one you want to grant. That is the dilemma facing Pakistan. For years, the country has gained from the support of its powerful Sunni Muslim ally, Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudis want something in return. They want Pakistan to join the fight in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies are fighting rebels known as Houthis.


UNIDENTIFIED MULLAH: (Yelling in foreign language).

INSKEEP: People like the leader of this demonstration really would like Pakistan to intervene; others would not. And we're going to follow the debate now in Pakistan's capital with NPR's Philip Reeves. Hi, Philip.


INSKEEP: What exactly do the Saudis want?

REEVES: Well, according to Pakistan's defense minister, they want troops and possibly planes and naval support for the fight that's underway in Yemen.

INSKEEP: And this is a situation where Pakistan, being a very large country, has a very large army. They have the manpower to spare. So why does this bother the Pakistanis?

REEVES: Well, it's awkward for them. Saudi Arabia is a very close ally. Both are predominantly Sunni. The Saudis often help the Pakistanis out in times of crisis. They've provided oil, for example, on favorable terms and funds, chipping in last year with $1.5 billion. And the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has very, very close personal ties to the kingdom. That's where he went after he was kicked out of office in 1999 by General Musharraf. But the military has a great deal on its plate right now. I mean, it's fighting in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. It's got a long-running insurgency to deal with in the southwest that's been going on for years. There's a threat by a plethora of militant groups, not only in the extremities of the country, but in the heartland, the Punjab. And tensions have, in the last few months, been rising with India. So, you know, this is a country that feels its military is really already at full stretch.

INSKEEP: Isn't there a mosque in Islamabad, where you are, which is the size of some kind of football stadium practically, which is said to be Saudi money? There's Saudi money all over Pakistan.

REEVES: Yes, indeed there is. And ties have been growing closer over the years. And actually, this has caused some concern here because the feeling is that the Saudis bring with them a variant of Islam which is considered to be more radical.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's actually changing the political landscape of the country, this Saudi money. But at the same time, when I look at a map of Pakistan, next door, to the west, is Iran. Is that a factor, simply that Iran is a very close neighbor also?

REEVES: It most certainly is a factor. Remember that the Iranians are accused by the U.S. and others of being players in this fight in Yemen by supporting the Houthi fighters there. That's why some people cast this as a proxy war between Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, and Shiites, Iran, you know, part of that growing regional rivalry. Iran is indeed a neighbor Pakistan. They have a difficult relationship. Pakistan's aware that Iran's influence is growing. It sees it as a possible source also of energy, has to take all of that into account. Iran's foreign minister has just completed a two-day visit here, and it's safe to assume that he pressed Pakistan to stay out of Yemen.

INSKEEP: Is it possible for the Pakistanis somehow not to decide between these two countries?

REEVES: Well, any decision on this actually ultimately rests in the hands of Pakistan's all-powerful military. However, this morning, the Pakistani parliament has passed a resolution on this crisis. It states that Pakistan should maintain neutrality so as to be able to play a proactive, diplomatic role in resolving it. But it also expresses unequivocal support for Saudi Arabia and states that it will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with it if the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia or the holy places are violated. And it calls on the international community to press for a peaceful resolution and for dialogue.

INSKEEP: Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.