The Pakistan Army will send a brigade of combat troops to Saudi Arabia to strengthen defences along the kingdom’s vulnerable southern border in the face of threats from the Islamic State and Houthi rebels, according to media reports.
Following discussions with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan plans to send the brigade in response to a request from Riyadh, which “wants the troops as an emergency response force”, The National reported.
The brigade will be based in southern Saudi Arabia and will be deployed inside its borders to thwart possible attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Middle East Eye quoted its sources as saying. “It will not be used beyond Saudi borders,” one source said.
The National also quoted a senior Pakistani military source as confirming the Saudi request and saying that the troops would “not go across the border” into Yemen. The troops will be kept in standby for any “major internal security threat or terrorist incident”, the source added.
A brigade in the Pakistan Army comprises about 3,000 troops.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have very close defence and security relations and this will not be the first time that Pakistani troops will be deployed to the kingdom. Pakistani troops train and advise Saudi military personnel and sources told Hindustan Times that about 2,000 Pakistani officers and soldiers are currently in the kingdom.
Military ruler Zia ul-Haq sent an elite armoured brigade to Saudi Arabia at King Fahd’s request after terrorists besieged the Grand Mosque complex in Mecca and the Iranian revolution in 1979. The brigade was deployed for a decade and some 40,000 soldiers served in it.
The latest development has coincided with the former Pakistan Army chief, Raheel Sharif, being appointed head of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA). The News daily reported on Monday that Sharif had been issued a three-year multiple entry visa – an indication that he had accepted the job.
Pakistan being sucked into conflict in Yemen?
Sources in Islamabad said Pakistan was apparently being sucked into the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. “The reports suggest the Pakistani troops will be positioned in areas that are being shelled by the rebels and any eventuality could lead to an escalation,” said a source.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is Iranian backing for the Shia Houthi rebels, forcing Islamabad to strike a balance between Riyadh and Tehran. Pakistan is also worried about potential domestic fallout of the fighting in Yemen as the Shia minority makes up almost a fifth of its population.
After the IMA was formed in 2015, Pakistan’s Parliament turned down a request from Saudi Arabia for troops and combat aircraft. Instead, Pakistan’s defence minister Khawaja Asif only pledged to safeguard Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity while working as a “facilitator” to end conflicts in between Muslim countries.
Current Pakistan Army chief, Gen Qamar Bajwa, reiterated this pledge during a visit to Saudi Arabia last December.
But given Pakistan’s economic dependence on Saudi Arabia, which is home to millions of expatriate workers who remit huge amounts home every year, it has become difficult for Islamabad to say no to Riyadh, sources said.
The two-year-old war in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people and injured another 40,000. Both sides have been accused of war crimes. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the IMA intervened after Houthis overran the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and ousted President Abd Rabbuh Hadi, who is backed by the Saudis.
In recent months, the Houthis have carried out several cross-border missile strikes. Reports in the Arabic media said a missile killed 80 soldiers on a base run jointly by the Saudis and UAE on Zuqar island in the Red Sea on January 31.