The advice that the kingdom’s friends are giving it now they should have given earlier when the Saudi royals, made nervous and paranoid by Iran, were getting ready to strike at Yemen. Now that, putting their prestige and standing on the line, they have begun their adventure they can be forgiven for wanting something more tangible than advice.
Unless they are made to look completely hopeless, they want troops – the muscle to form an expeditionary force – to defeat the Houthis and push them back to their northern redoubts. That alone can salvage Saudi pride and ambition. God alone knows what the Saudis had been led to expect by their gung-ho friends – Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan – but now that they (the Saudis) have truly put their foot into the Yemen trap we are beginning to hear more about a peaceful resolution of this crisis.
Turkey, one must hasten to say, was never a candidate for sending troops to Yemen. But the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is fast consolidating his position as a foreign policy disaster – he got Syria wrong and is now getting Yemen wrong – used strong language about the spread of Iranian influence across the region. He could have proved a truer friend of Saudi Arabia if during his visit to Riyadh just prior to the Saudi offensive he had told his Saudi hosts that they would be doing themselves no good if they started a war they could not finish.
And one can only wonder what Pakistan’s Sharif would have said to his Saudi benefactors. Was he in a position to do any plain talking? Did the Pakistani side fully grasp the Saudi war planning? Did the Pakistani prime minister make any verbal pledges? Did he make it plain that Pakistan was in no position to send troops to Yemen or, hand held to his chest – a gesture which comes easily to us – did he convey the opposite impression?
Whatever the assurances given before the Saudi offensive, it doesn’t take much to see that the Saudi-led coalition, for all its initial swagger, is proving to be a paper tiger. The Egyptian military burnt their fingers in Yemen in Nasser’s time. So they know Yemen better than most others. But Field Marshal Abdel Fateh el-Sisi is beholden to the Saudis for all the cash they have given him. So it is a moot point what Egypt ends up doing.
This leaves Pakistan on whom the Saudis would be counting most desperately. Sharif, as already stated, is beholden to the Saudis. But apart from this it is part of our culture, part of our ingrained tradition, to be over-generous with our words, to lapse into poetry when simple prose would be a better medium of expression, and to end up promising more than we can deliver. This is the Pakistani habit, even in our everyday dealings. So it would be good to know what exactly Sharif committed himself to in Riyadh. What were the Saudis led to believe?
Now it is not just the Saudis learning the price of eggs but the Sharif government too. If the Saudis are learning the limits of their power, the civilian government in Pakistan is learning, admittedly not for the first time, that to do anything it must have the army on board. And the army, whatever appearances may suggest, seems not to be too keen to jump into the hot oven of Yemen – although again we don’t know what may have been pledged and what actually the army may be preparing to do.
Although, to repeat the first point, if Nawaz Sharif was in any position to read the Yemen situation correctly, he would have proved a better friend of the Saudis if he had done some plain talking with them about the dangers of starting hostilities in Yemen.
There is also the Ukrainian option…of sending troops without badges and insignias and describing them as volunteers. Where folly is once on the march there is no knowing the limits to which it can go. In the Kargil adventure our regular soldiers we called ‘mujahideen’. If the army caves in to Saudi pressure – and we really don’t know what is going on behind the scenes – is this bit of cleverness beyond the ingenuity of our decision-makers?
At the heart of the Saudi problem lies a fundamental miscalculation. So far their answer to every problem has been the writing of an appropriate cheque. El-Sissi has to be propped up: write him a substantial cheque. Pakistan’s leaders have to be mollified: write them a smaller cheque but with the certainty that their gratitude will be greater. Bashar al-Assad must be ousted: arm the rebels and give them money. And so on. The Saudi answer to even domestic discontent is not political reform but more handouts and subsidies.
The trouble is that a purely mercenary approach to diplomacy can only get you paper tigers. The unspoken Iranian coalition has something far stronger on its side: commitment and fervour. There is Hezbollah on Iran’s side – Hezbollah, the only force in the Middle East which has been able to hold its own against the Israeli military, indeed the only entity in the Arab world for which the Israelis show grudging respect. There is al-Assad who despite a ferocious civil war whose flames have touched Damascus itself has stood his ground and not fled from his capital. There is the Syrian army which has become battle-hardened. And there is Iran’s direct intervention which has helped stem the advancing tide of the Islamic State.
Is there anything like Hezbollah on the Saudi side, anything like the Syrian army, anything like the Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani? In their bid to oust al-Assad in Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies created favourable conditions for the emergence and rise of the Islamic State. The Saudi attack on Yemen far from defeating the Houthis has created conditions which Al Qaeda on the Peninsula is exploiting. But in their paranoia about Iran the Saudis are oblivious to every other consideration.
Israel may do what it pleases – that doesn’t lose the Saudis any sleep – but Iranian influence must be contained. The Iranians for their part are broadening their options. They are playing on a larger stage. The Saudis are trying to keep time stand still. They are for preserving things as they are. This approach worked so long as American power was paramount and it was in everyone’s interest to keep Iran isolated. But thanks to the Iraq war and other blunders, American power is no longer the thing that it was. It has been checked in Syria. It has been checked in the Ukraine. Iran meanwhile is breaking out of its international isolation. And to the east China casts a larger shadow on world affairs.
The Saudis could have played a more imaginative game by trying to influence developments in Yemen from a distance. With their eyes closed they are walking into a quagmire, although with Yemen’s history intertwined with their own who should know better than them that much like Afghanistan, Yemen has been a graveyard of invading armies?
If Pakistan is a true friend of the Saudis it should point out these dangers, forcefully and without mincing words, and together with Iran and Turkey throw its weight behind a peaceful end to the fighting. This will be the greatest favour that anyone can do to the House of Saud. Forget about the dangers to Pakistan. Sending troops to Yemen will only mean reinforcing the disaster that the Saudis are creating for themselves.
Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan should be read as a cautionary tale. Pakistan suffered the consequences. The Saudi monarchy has to live in a dream-world to think that if the Yemen conflict lengthens Saudi Arabia will remain immune from the fallout.