Foreign policy choices shape Pakistan’s domestic politics in ways that are unusual for many countries.
Its involvement in Afghanistan since 1979, for instance, led to the creation of jihadist networks that now threaten the legitimacy of the State. Islamabad is now rightly conflicted about a decision that could have far-reaching implications for domestic and regional stability. Saudi Arabia has asked for Pakistan’s military assistance while it conducts airstrikes in Yemen to stop the advance of Houthi rebels who have taken control of key cities, including the capital Sana’a.
Islamabad has sent a civil-military delegation to Riyadh to discuss the crisis but this is not a request that Nawaz Sharif’s government can bat away easily.
Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s closest ally for decades — both countries have intimate state-level and social links. Mr Sharif himself lived in exile in Saudi Arabia. Many believe that the Saudis are bankrolling Pakistan’s fast-expanding nuclear arsenal in the hope of quickly acquiring one should Iran go nuclear.
Several leading strategic analysts have, however, warned Mr Sharif about getting entangled in West Asia’s crises. The civil war in Yemen pits Houthis, a Yazidi sect associated with Shia Islam based in the north, against Sunni groups that are dominant in the south.
Pakistan itself has seen severe sectarian strife, with the Shia minority of 20 million people being brutally targeted by Sunni groups. Getting involved in an open-ended war in Yemen could worsen community tensions in Pakistan.
Pakistani military action in Yemen at the behest of Saudi Arabia would also mean casting its lot explicitly against Iran.
Iran and Pakistan have drifted apart despite being neighbours owing to different political trajectories over the last 40 years; one a revolutionary Shia regime with a strong anti-American streak while the other being an ally of Washington despite many bilateral contradictions. Geopolitics are, however, now more fluid than ever, with Iran being set to play a bigger role in the region.
Refusing the Saudis would be tough as they may see this as a test of Pakistan’s loyalty. Mr Sharif will have to find other ways of placating Riyadh.