Saudi Arabia launched a series of air strikes in Yemen on Thursday and announced that it is leading a coalition of ten states against the Houthis. The Houthis are a Shia group that overthrew the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in January of this year. They are currently in control of the capital Sana’a and much of Northern Yemen. The Houthis are aiming to expand their control over all of Yemen and are supported by Iran. Iran is a strong supporter of the Houthis and has lashed out against Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners for its attacks in Yemen. However, Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as an existential threat to Sunni states in the region. In response to this perceived threat, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners have launched operation “Decisive Storm” to defeat the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan for support in this campaign. Although Pakistan has a deep strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, it must not get involved in Yemen because it does not advance its interests in the region, will serve to antagonize both the domestic and international Shia community, and the legality of military action is questionable at best.
Pakistan’s strategic interests will be hurt if it gets involved in this military campaign. Although Pakistan has a deep economic and military relationship with Saudi Arabia, it has a budding relationship with Iran that needs to continue to improve. Pakistan has been developing a stronger economic and security relationship with Iran over the past several years. Bilateral trade continues to improve, with nearly $900 million worth of trade conducted last year. Furthermore, increased security cooperation is helping to secure the porous border between Iran and Baluchistan. Finally, the cost of non-involvement for Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia remains lows, especially because of the strong ties between Nawaz Sharif and the Saudi royal family. Non-involvement will not substantively hurt Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s relationship, while involvement on behalf of Riyadh in Yemen will significantly hurt Islamabad’s relationship with Tehran. The costs for involvement far outweigh any strategic gains.
Any involvement by Pakistan in this conflict will antagonize both the domestic and international Shia communities. It is estimated that 20% of Pakistan’s population is Shia, giving it the second largest Shia population in the world with up to 40 million adherents across the country. The large Shia population in Pakistan has experienced prejudice and attacks in the past, with the most recent attack being a suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar last month that killed 19 people. As this conflict is being framed by Saudi Arabia as a Sunni versus Shia showdown, Pakistan’s involvement on behalf of Saudi Arabia will be perceived by the Shia community as further proof of the Pakistani state’s bias against them. Pakistan cannot afford to further alienate this important community, especially at a time of heightened religious polarization across the country and world.
Pakistan must not get involved in Yemen because the current coalition against the Houthis is operating outside of the confines of international law. According to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, a state cannot get involved in the affairs of another state unless it is being attacked. Saudi Arabia is not being attacked by the Houthis and thus its military strike can be viewed as an abrogation of the principle of non-intervention into sovereign states. Although supporters of intervention will argue that Saudi Arabia’s actions are justified in order to support the deposed government of Yemen, without an explicit United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, the current attack is not legally sanctioned. An illegal intervention into another state is not a position Pakistan should support, especially given the vocal critique by politicians like Imran Khan that U.S. drone strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Given the extreme antipathy by many Pakistanis towards the violation of its sovereignty, Pakistan should avoid doing that which it generally condemns.
Although Riyadh would like the support of Islamabad in its current campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, Pakistan must avoid getting involved in this conflict. Involvement in the conflict will not advance Pakistan’s strategic interests and will instead hurt ties with Iran and the Shia community. The costs for noninvolvement are extremely low and even though numerous states are participating in this conflict, they appear to be doing so outside of the confines of international law. Pakistan should adopt a realist position on this conflict and remain steadfast in avoiding Saudi Arabia’s coalition against the Houthis in Yemen.