Pakistan Walking a Fine Line over Yemen


by Fatemeh Aman

Tensions are on the rise between Pakistan and its Arab allies over Pakistan’s refusal to take sides in the Yemen crisis.

Pakistanis show no interest in participating in a war that could jeopardize their relationship with Iran, increase sectarian tensions at home, and even boost the presence of the group that calls itself the Islamic State. At the same time, Pakistan needs energy and remittances from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab countries that are supporting the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is urging Pakistan to join the coalition fighting Yemeni Houthi rebels by contributing jets, ships and ground troops. However, Pakistani lawmakers rejected the idea and called for Pakistan’s neutrality and a mediating role.

Under Pakistan’s constitution, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has the authority to make the decision and does not need parliament’s permission to dispatch troops. However, he sent the matter to parliament anyway as a means of justifying his refusal to agree to the Saudi request.

Striking a Balance

Some lawmakers opposed any participation in the conflict, describing it as a civil conflict inside Yemen in which Pakistan should play no part. Even those members who referred to Pakistan’s “excellent” relations with Saudi Arabia and praised it for “always extending political, diplomatic, and financial support in the hour of need,” didn’t want Pakistan to become a party to the fighting in Yemen.

Some Arab reaction was harsh. The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash warned Pakistan that it would have to pay a “heavy price” for taking what he called an “ambiguous stand.” Federal Minister for Interior Chaudhry Nisar, one of the most powerful figures in Sharif’s cabinet, rejected the threat, calling it “ironic and a point to ponder for Pakistan.”

Saudi Arabia has always been a generous supporter of Pakistan. For four years after 1998, when international sanctions were imposed on Pakistan because of the test of its first nuclear device, Saudi Arabia supplied $3.5 billion worth of oil to Pakistan on a deferred payment basis. The Saudis have financed other investments and trade deals, providing oil on a three-year payment plan, valued at between $12 and $15 billion. Saudi generosity has been one factor in delaying a planned pipeline from Iran to Pakistan—known as the peace pipeline—that is intended to carry Iranian natural gas.

Oil Politics

Pakistan is facing a growing energy crisis, which has caused severe electricity shortages. The peace pipeline was envisioned as one way to deal with this crisis. First proposed in 1994, it starts at Iran’s South Pars field in Asalouyeh and runs through Iranshahr and Iranian Baluchistan. It is intended to continue through Pakistani Baluchistan, Sindh, Khuzar and Multan, where it could be extended to both Karachi and New Delhi. India pulled back from the project to avoid violation of international sanctions imposed on Iran.

The Iranian portion of the 485-mile pipeline, started in 2002, has been completed and the entire project was due to have been finished by the end of 2014. However, it remained uncompleted inside Pakistani territory since Pakistan lacked the required funds. Previous Iranian governments agreed to provide Pakistan with $500 million to start building the pipeline. But President Hassan Rouhani changed course and insisted that Pakistan finance its portion of the project. Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh even indicated that the deal might be canceled. According to the agreement between the two countries, if Pakistan does not finish its portion of the pipeline, it would have to pay a monthly penalty of $200 million to Iran.

In October 2014, Pakistan’s Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi stated to his Iranian counterpart that Pakistan is seeking China’s help to build the pipeline. Recent progress in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers and the prospect of lifting sanctions on Iran may have been a contributing factor in China’s willingness to help finance the project.

Jeopardizing an Economic Connection

The Yemen crisis has added a new dimension to the planned gas pipeline. Even if Iran’s gas is the most advantageous alternative to Arab oil for Pakistan, and perhaps the most reliable and lasting source of energy, Pakistan cannot afford having tense relations with its traditional Sunni Arab friends. In the last ten years Pakistani remittancefrom Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which have reached billions of dollars, have become a central element of Pakistan’s economy.

During his visit to Pakistan last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for cooperation between Iran and Pakistan to resolve the crisis in Yemen. Meeting with high-ranking Pakistani officials, Zarif emphasized the importance of cooperation between the two countries to overcome regional challenges. At the same time Nawaz Sharif on April 13, while referring to Pakistan’s “neutrality” in the Yemen conflict, repeated Pakistan’s desire to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan, which has a significant Shiite minority, has to walk a fine line between its relatively good relationship with Shiite Iran and its strong financial supporter, Sunni Saudi Arabia. In regards to Yemen and recent talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Pakistan has so far taken a solid mediating position. This reflects a more realistic position and Pakistan’s calculation that staying away from a regional military confrontation will lead to longer-term benefits.

Photo: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, UAE Royal Family Member Sheikh Nahyan Al Mubarak Al Nahyan, and Pakistani Minister of Finance Mohammad Ishaq Dar

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Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).



  1. To Monty Ahwazi
    Pakistan corruption is tribal ,parochial,and clannish. Its based on family cohesion ,family pride,and group support . The corruption is an expression of DNA based loyalty . The provincialism or the culture of Punjab hegemony over the rest has rendered Pakistan unable to get rid of corruption. Punjab culture both in India and Pakistan is very exclusive,arrogant,reactionary,and exploitative . Saudi just found a rich medium to grow in Pakistan. Until this tribal mind set is got rid of nothing will change . Biggest bidder will and can replace Saudi. This tribal power projection has unleashed other reactionary responses from other linguistic minorities .
    Pakistan hope lies in breaking the chock hold Punjab enjoys over Pakistan .

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