Pakistan’s Effort to Mediate the Yemen Crisis is a Tough Mountain to Climb
Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan announced a new Pakistani effort to mediate Saudi Arabia and Iran in order to end the three-year-old war in Yemen that led to what the United Nations described as a ‘worst humanitarian crisis.’ During this announcement, the Cricketer-turned politician was in Riyadh for his second visit since his election in August, attending the “Future Investment Initiative” in which the Kingdom announced a new offer to invest $6 billion in Pakistan, amid a serious economic crisis that led Islamabad to send a request for a new bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
A senior cabinet member of the Pakistani government added to Khan’s statement that Islamabad has proposed these negotiations with Saudi Arabia during the latter’s previous trip to Riyadh, soon after his election in August and since then, Pakistan has carried out a ‘track II process’ and is in touch with all stakeholders in the Yemen conflict.
The war in Yemen between a Saudi led coalition and the Houthis has been in progress for the last three years. Riyadh and its coalition supports the exiled President Abd-Rabu Mansur Hadi, while the Houthis who are bolstered by the Islamic Republic of Iran rule key cities including the capital Sanaa. Tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have significantly shaped the Middle East for decades and Yemen is part of a number of countries that act as a chessboard in what Martin Reardon of The Soufan Group described as the great game of rivalry for power and influence between the two regional powers. “The great game” was used to describe the competition between Great Britain and the Russian Empire in Central & South Asia in the 19th century.
Although the situation in Yemen is complex and several wars are simultaneously ongoing as Gregory Johnsen from the Arabian Foundation argued recently, Islamabad took a neutral position in the Saudi-Houthi war and didn’t send troops to Yemen, which represented a strategic shift from the historic Saudi-Pakistani partnership. But nevertheless, while the Pakistani-Saudi relationship never broke down, Islamabad continued to work closely to some extent with its neighbour, Iran. However, the appointment of Pakistan’s former army chief of staff Raheel Sharif to lead the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition raised a serious concern in Tehran due to Iran’s fear that the coalition’s agenda is to further sectarian division in the Islamic world.
The new US pressure on Pakistan under its South Asia Strategy as well as President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran offered a new opportunity for a rapprochement between Tehran and Islamabad to deepen their bilateral ties. However, the Iranian anti-American sentiment did not help bridge a number of economic and security interests that both republics have. Despite, Prime Minister Khan’s repeated statements that Pakistan will play a ‘constructive and positive role’ between the two adversaries, Pakistan’s position on the Saudi-Iranian enmity is going to be more complex than Khan’s statement. Pakistan’s new proposal to mediate the two rivals on Yemen is not likely to move forward due to the following reasons.
First, although Pakistan enjoys a close relationship with Saudi Arabia; Islamabad shares a long border with Iran. Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus, which plays a leading role in shaping Islamabad’s foreign and security policy was recently in favour of improving bilateral ties between Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan’s army chief of staff Qamar Bajwa recently visited Tehran in a rare move, while his Iranian counterpart also paid a visit to Islamabad in return.
Nonetheless, the volatile Baluchistan province on the border between the two countries usually creates tense security relations between the two countries. The recent kidnapping of more than ten Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers by an anti-Shiite militant group in Pakistan increased tension between the two countries and could lead to a new path of collision if not solved swiftly. Official statements by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) indicate Tehran’s concerns regarding the support that these militias receive from some ‘regional states’ and expressed a hope that Islamabad could confront these terrorist groups. Though the IRGC did not mention a country by name, the statement was indeed expressing a concern regarding that Saudi Arabia could provide support for these groups. Tehran is always concerned about Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s statement last year that Riyadh is ‘not going to wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia,’ but instead the kingdom would work ‘so the battle is for them in Iran’ without further elaborating what his new policies towards Iran are.
Second, the complex web of shifting alliances and the balance of power in the Middle East and South Asia leads Islamabad not to act as a neutral partner to the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, although Pakistan intends to have friendly relations with both countries. China’s engagement with Pakistan under the multibillion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is aimed to develop and modernize Pakistan’s infrastructure while providing for Chinese ships a sustained anchorage in an area close to the Arabian sea, where Beijing receives a large amount of its energy.
As a counterbalance to China’s CPEC, India decided to develop Chabahar port in southern Iran in an attempt to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistani ports and to reduce China’s growing influence in South Asia, as well as in the Middle East. Although the fate of the Chabahar project is unclear as the US is looming to re-impose economic sanctions on Iran after its decision to withdraw from the multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to join the economic corridor raises a concern in Tehran about the prospect for Pakistan to balance its relations with Riyadh and Tehran. Not only will the geo-economics and the geopolitical competition in the region by major outside regional powers prevent Pakistan from acting as a mediator in the conflict, but Saudi economic assistance, as well as Islamabad’s military presence in the kingdom increases wariness in Iran about trusting Islamabad to mediate the two archrivals in the Middle East.
Third, the kingdom’s unwillingness to solve the Yemen crisis through a UN led peace process challenges Islamabad’s quest to mediate Iran and Saudi Arabia to secure the peace in Yemen. Riyadh intervened in the war in Yemen in 2015 on behalf of President Hadi’s government in order to neutralize the Houthis which a year earlier expanded from the North to the capital of Sana’a, which caused Hadi to flee to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and is willing to counteract them in order to prevent Tehran from taking over the kingdom’s southern border, which could threaten Riyadh’s internal security as well as its economic interests in the Red Sea. The Saudi concern over Iran added by Washington’s unwillingness to pressure Riyadh to make a peace settlement with the Houthis to end the war will make the Pakistani proposal highly unlikely to achieve any positive outcome. This means that the war in Yemen will continue, the Saudi led coalition is unlikely to win as long as the current strategy is pursued, the humanitarian crisis is not going away, and Iran is strategically going to gain more. It is also important to note that Yemen acts as a bargaining chip for Tehran in its strategic calculus, and its support for the Houthis does not mean that it serves a key strategic objective for Iran that is non-negotiable as it is for Riyadh.
Relations between Tehran and Riyadh have been at loggerheads for decades over a long list of differences apart from Yemen and thus it’s not going to be easy for Islamabad to mediate between the two regional powers due to Pakistan’s economic dependence on Saudi Arabia.