DUBAI — Despite Pakistan's assertion that it will defend Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity militarily, it still may not provide any troops to the Saudi-announced Islamic counterterrorism military coalition.
During a visit to Pakistan on Sunday by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif asserted that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would be answered by a strong response.
“Pakistan holds its defense ties with the kingdom in highest esteem, reasserting that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan,” Raheel said.
In a statement issued by the Pakistani military’s media wing, the Army chief said, “Pakistan enjoys close and brotherly relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and attaches great importance to their security.”
Despite the statements, a Pakistani government official quoted in Pakistan's The Express Tribune publication made it clear that Pakistan will not join any action aimed at any specific country.
“We support a political solution to the Syrian problem without interference from the outside,” the official said.
When asked if Pakistan would provide troops to the coalition efforts, the official said details were being worked out, however, Pakistan’s role would remain restricted to intelligence-sharing, counterterrorism training and other activities in the coalition.
“Saudi remains a strong and special ally of Pakistan with their long historical relationship, however, geopolitical developments of recent times have created new realities which made Pakistan counter-balance its relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Giorgio Cafiero, chief executive officer and founder of Washington-based firm Gulf State Analytics.
“Pakistan is striking a carefully calculated balance. As Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical tensions with Iran develop, Pakistan has to be balanced; their energy relations with Iran are very important as well as the sectarian tensions ignited in the country,” Cafiero added.
Cafiero said that it would be unrealistic for Islamabad to stand firmly with Saudi Arabia against Iran because of Pakistan’s internal and geopolitical vulnerabilities.
“This 34-nation alliance that the Saudis established last month is set to be against Daesh and al-Qaeda; in reality this alliance is the Saudi vision for uniting the Sunni world against Iran and their Shiite allies,” Cafiero said.
“Pakistan will be very careful about joining any Saudi alliance in such campaigns aimed at countering Iran’s influence given the sectarian undertones.”
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said Pakistan would stand by Saudi Arabia if any threat arises to its territorial integrity.
In his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the prime minister exchanged views on bilateral relations and the regional situation, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have different interests, said Jean-Marc Rickli, assistant professor at the Department of Defence Studies, King's College, London.
"The bottom line for Pakistan’s support to Saudi Arabia has been clearly demonstrated with Islamabad’s refusal to commit troops to Yemen and has been a blow to Riyadh's attempt at creating the largest Sunni coalition," he said.
"Saudi Arabia fears the revival of Iran after the lifting of the sanctions as well as opposes Iran’s meddling in regional security through various Shia groups and militias. Pakistan has the world’s second largest Sunni and Shi’ite populations, on the other hand, and wants to immunize itself as much as possible from sectarian divisions although it is already affected by it."
Furthermore, Pakistan needs both Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s help to support a political situation in Afghanistan, Rickli asserted. In short, it is not in Pakistan’s interests to alienate any of these countries.
In order to avoid a catch-22 situation, Rickli said, Pakistan's support to Saudi Arabia will likely be on the diplomatic front by playing the role of the mediator.
"The problem is that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is willing to de-escalate so far. Considering the geostrategic situation Pakistan is in and its recent diplomatic moves, the only realistic case that could trigger military support to Saudi Arabia would be if the “two holy cities of Mecca and Medina” would directly be attacked," he added.