Saudis turn to religion to bend Pakistan's Yemen policy
by Anadolu Agency
KarachiMay 01, 2015 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Anadolu Agency
May 01, 2015 12:00 am
Frustrated by Pakistan's insistence on remaining neutral on the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, the Gulf nation has looked to exert religious influence over its South Asian ally. Shaikh Khalid Ghamidi, an Imam at Islam's holiest site, the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, delivered a Friday sermon at Pakistan's largest mosque, a week after he rushed to Pakistan to lobby the support of Pakistani citizens in the Saudi battle against Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels. Ghamidi's visit followed an earlier one by the religious affairs minister, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz, immediately after Pakistan's parliament angered Arab allies by urging the government not to become involved in the Yemen conflict; which has been seen as some as proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They met mainstream religious leaders and reached out to ordinary citizens through public and religious gatherings; something without much precedent in the decades-long relationship between the two allies. "The parliamentary resolution is Pakistan's internal matter but it seems the public opinion does not match with that [resolution]," Shaikh Ghamidi said in an interview with Pakistan's Geo TV on Sunday. "I thank the Pakistani nation for its support to the Saudi action in Yemen. I truly believe that Pakistanis will always stand alongside Saudi Arabia in testing times." The United Arab Emirates was openly critical of Pakistan with its state minister saying Pakistan would pay a "heavy price" for neutrality.
Shaikh Ghamidi has exploited every opportunity to defend the Saudi invasion of Yemen, telling a conference organized by Pakistani religious parties that the Houthi rebels intended to attack Islam's holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Given that Saudi Arabia has in the past aided Pakistan, especially in energy and economic crises, some Pakistanis were angered that the government did not accept the request to join military operations in Yemen. "This [resolution] is a huge blunder committed by Pakistani government and politicians," said Usaid Rehman, Karachi University student. "Saudi Arabia has never shown neutrality in testing times [for Pakistan] but when it needed our help, we are staying neutral." Islamabad has on several occasions insisted that it would directly intervene if Saudi Arabia's own territory was threatened by the Houthi rebels.
Among Pakistan's Shia community there is more support for Pakistan's stance. One concern Pakistan had about joining the operation was the fear of increased sectarian violence between the Sunni majority and significant Shia minority. "Mecca and Medina are equally scared for Shias. The Saudi government is trying to exploit the religious sentiment of Pakistanis. Otherwise, there is no threat to Mecca and Medina. It's just a Saudi invasion of Yemen," said Allama Nasir Aftab, a prominent Shia leader. Pakistan's government has desperately tried to patch up the damage caused to diplomatic relations by its neutrality, sending several delegations to Saudi Arabia, including one led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The Saudi-led intervention began on March 25 and involved a heavy campaign of airstrikes until April 21, when they were officially ended. The military operation, however, continues, involving ground troops and Yemeni anti-Houthi groups. "Time is running out for the government. It's better for the government to itself announce support for Saudi action in Yemen otherwise the people of Pakistan will do that," said Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, a campaigner in support of the Saudi operation, told thousands at a rally in the city of Lahore. Several other religious groups also support Saudi Arabia, especially politically inclined parties which have mobilized their supporters for large rallies. Security analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai said Saudi Arabia's tactics are beginning to put the Pakistani government under pressure but that it is unlikely to backtrack on the resolution. "Use of non-state actors to put pressure on the Pakistani government is unnecessary. The diplomatic pressure and anger shown by Saudi Arabia, and its allies is already enough to soften Islamabad's stand," said Yusufzai.