Yemen and Pakistan: a question of sects

Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to support its military intervention in Yemen by providing combat planes, warships and soldiers. But according to an article in the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, Saudi Arabia has a further request: that any troops sent by Pakistan should be Sunni Muslims, not Shia.

This hasn't been reported elsewhere so far as I can tell, and I have not been able to confirm it independently. But it's also not the sort of request that either side would choose to advertise and, given the way Saudi Arabia has been focusing on sectarian aspects of the Yemen conflict, it doesn't sound implausible.

Readers posting comments below The Nation's article don't sound surprised by the story and some of them say it has happened before.

One reader says that in the 1980s General Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani president at the time, was asked to send only Sunni officers in a delegation to Saudi Arabia, but he refused.

Another reader says that in other military dealings between the two countries Saudi Arabia has asked for Sunni-only troops but Pakistan has always made a point of including small numbers of Shia – sometimes disguising them as Sunnis in their documentation.

Although Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country it does have a significant Shia minority. The figures are disputed but a report in the Financial Times says the Shia account for about 20% of the 185 million population. If this is correct, it would mean that Pakistan has the largest number of Shia Muslims outside Iran.

Even without the question of sending Sunni/Shia troops, involvement in the Yemen conflict therefore risks inflaming tensions within Pakistan.

Sectarianism is of course rife in Pakistan – much of it a result of Saudi influence – but in an article for al-Jazeera's website, Omar Waraich notes that the Pakistani army has been relatively free from it:

"[Prime minister] Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party is seen within Pakistan to favour Sunnis, and as having ties with sectarian groups. It has few Shia parliamentarians and few Shia voters.

"Pakistan’s army, however, has never had a sectarian reputation. It has included many Shia generals, although their numbers have thinned over the years. Some of the worst victims of the Pakistani Taliban’s savagery were Shia soldiers, who were murdered in captivity. 

"Becoming an overtly Sunni army would compromise the Pakistan military’s proud claim of being a force of cohesion for the country, and risk alienating many Shia Pakistanis, at a time when there is a clamour for unity against the Taliban at home."

The Pakistani government has voiced general support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen but has not yet said what tangible help it will provide. The question is currently being debated in parliament. Reports suggest that any Pakistani troops will be deployed in Saudi Arabia rather than Yemen.

Numerous observers have pointed out that Pakistan is not really in a position to refuse Saudi Arabia's request for help. It relies heavily on Saudi aid ($1.5 billion last year), plus remittances from Pakistanis working in the kingdom, often under appalling conditions. Besides that, prime minister Sharif previously lived as a exile in Jeddah.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 7 April 2015