Pakistan’s all-weather friend counsels caution

The opinion of an “all-weather friend” should always count. Will Pakistan take China’s estimation of the Yemen situation seriously before crossing the Rubicon to meet Saudi Arabia’s expectations from it? Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who just returned from a visit to Riyadh leading a military delegation, told the parliament in Islamabad on Monday, “Saudi Arabia has asked for combat planes, warships and soldiers.”

Yet, in an extraordinarily frank assessment, Xinhua news agency flagged over the weekend that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is motivated by its narrow self-interests and do not rest on any principles. The commentary attributes four motives to the Saudi intervention, which it says, was “by no means an impulse (sic) decision by Saudi leaders, but reflects their strategic consideration in various aspects.”

One, heightened security concerns over a possible spillover of terrorist (read al-Qaeda) activities in Yemen would have worked on the Saudi mind. Two, the intervention in Yemen serves “to divert attention from the increasingly fierce power struggle among the royals, and provides the new leader (King Salman) a chance to establish his authority.” (Emphasis added.)

Three, Riyadh hopes that the tensions would drive up oil prices, “and that could consolidate Saudi Arabia’s market share.” Four, Saudi Arabia hopes to throw a spanner at the wheel of the US-Iran nuclear negotiations and prevent “a détente between Tehran and the West.”

Indeed, this is plain speaking. China doesn’t buy the Saudi thesis of a hidden Iranian agenda to destabilize Saudi Arabia by inciting the Houthis of Yemen, nor does it see the Yemen conflict as a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran or even as a Sunni-Shi’ite question regionally.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has not come under threat. But it can, if the Saudis persist on the war path. The precipitate Saudi action is bound to produce a backlash at some point. From independent media accounts, the Saudi military operations are having no tangible effect on the ground on the Houthi’s march into Aden city.

Meanwhile, the Houthis have put the Saudis on the defensive by offering talks. So have the UN agencies and Russia by requesting a “humanitarian pause” in the Saudi air strikes. More and more media reports speak of horrific civilian casualties (Al Jazeera). Even the cheerleaders among the neocons in the US or Israel would gurdgingly agree by now that it’s becoming a PR disaster for the Saudis.

Hardly two weeks into the war, Riyadh seems to have bitten more than what it can chew. The Saudi demarche with Islamabad virtually seeks subcontracting the war to the Pakistani generals. But Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will do well to pay heed to the Chinese assessment. Read the Xinhua commentary here.

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