Pakistan decides to remain ‘neutral’ in the Yemen conflict

Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously passed a resolution expressing its ‘desire that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.’ While the resolution also reaffirms Pakistan’s ‘unequivocal support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ this desire for neutrality indicates that the country will not be joining the Saudi-led military coalition that is currently fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The parliamentary resolution is not binding on the executive branch of government, meaning that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could still decide to take part in the coalition. But the fact that it was passed unanimously and that large parts of the resolution were proposed by senior cabinet member and Minister of Finance Ishaq Dar, who is a member of the ruling PML-N party and related to Prime Minister Sharif, suggests that it is highly unlikely the government will defy it.

Members of both houses of parliament began debating involvement in Yemen on Monday the 6th of April, since when many Pakistani politicians and lawmakers have spoken out against joining the coalition. The request put forward by Saudi Arabia placed Pakistan in a difficult position. On the one hand, Pakistan is a longstanding ally to Saudi Arabia and they share strong economic, military and religious ties. On the other hand, it shares a border with Iran, a country allegedly providing assistance to the Houthi rebels that Saudi Arabia is trying to defeat. Agreeing to provide military troops and equipment to the Saudi-led coalition could therefore possibly sour relations between Pakistan and its neighbour.

Getting involved could possibly also inflame sectarian tensions domestically. On April 3rd, anti-Shia armed groups in Pakistan – including those behind numerous incidents of anti-Shia violence in recent years – took to the streets to express their support for the Saudis and their detestation of Iranian influence. If the Pakistani government were to join Sunni Saudi Arabia, or indeed Shia Iran, that could serve to induce more protests and even sectarian violence. Pakistan has a Sunni majority but the Shia minority makes up around one-fifth of the population, making Pakistan the largest home to Shias outside Iran. Pakistan is therefore afraid of being caught in the middle of two actors that are on the verge of an all-out proxy war on Yemeni soil.

Deciding against joining the Saudi-led military coalition was a smart move. Not only could it complicate things at home, but also abroad. While Pakistan still remains an ally to Saudi Arabia, the decision to remain neutral in the Yemen conflict suggests that the country is still capable of making tough decisions that it perceives to be in its best interest.