Yemen (Daily Times (Pakistan))

After remaining in the headlines due to a long and protracted civil war, finally emerged into an outright regional conflict last week, with the Saudi Arabia led coalition launching an assault against Houti rebels. While the stated Saudi goal is to protect the regime of President Mansur, the move has broader strategic objectives for Saudi Arabia. For one, Saudi Arabia wants to check Tehrans ever-increasing influence in the region. For this same reason, it has backed elements in Lebanon to undermine Hezbollah and is backing war against the Assad regime in Syria. Second, the move has put the US in a tight spot; the US is already negotiating with Iran on a nuclear deal that remains vital to President Obamas foreign policy objectives but is also committed to a stable for its fight against al Qaeda. In the process, the US chose to side with its old allies in the region in supporting the operation in . Third, areas in Saudi Arabia have historically been subject to assaults from the South and thus the Saudi regimes have been overly sensitive about non-friendly buildups in .
Ever since the beginning of the Iraq war and the worlds focus turning to Saudi-backed Salafi extremism, Iran has been increasing its influence in the region slowly but gradually. The fall of Saddam Hussein allowed it to have a friendly regime in Baghdad. The weakening position of Israel in western foreign policy and the growing concern in western societies about Israels human rights record, allowed Hezbollah, an Iranian backed Lebanese group, to have a more dominant role in the Lebanese power structure. It also tried to cultivate relations with the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mr Morsi, which was opposed by the Saudi monarchy for concerns regarding the ever-increasing footprint of the Brotherhood. Through the Hazaras and Northern Alliance it has a more favourable power arrangement in Afghanistan than it ever had since the days of the Shah. And though its strongest ally in the region, Assad, was almost rooted out by a Saudi-backed rebellion, the growing concerns regarding Islamic State (IS) have made the USand other westerners back Assad in his fight against IS. If there is any comparison that comes to mind to the mess that is the Middle East, it is Europe between the French Revolution and the First World War.
Saudi Arabia on the other hand feels itself threatened by a rising Iran. Though a bigger chunk of the problem is sectarian, as the Wahhabi brand of Saudi Arabia has bitter history against the Iranian brand of Shiaism, the roots of the conflict lie in power politics. Iran has been center stage in the Middle East power structure for the last two millennia. After the First World War and oil dominance, the Arabs had their first taste of wealth and political power. But even then, Iran under the Shah, remained the lynchpin of the regional power structure. After the fall of the Shah, the conflict between the US and the ayatollahs provided Saudis with an opportunity to change the regional balance of power. Through petro-dollars, western-backing and export of its radical brand of Islam, the Saudis created an influence that transcended beyond the region. And Iran, which was marred by sanctions, became a pariah in the region and across the globe. With a US-Iran deal looming and Irans ever-increasing role, this is changing. This is complimented by the natural advantages Iran has over Saudi Arabia. One is demographics. Then there is the highly skilled Iranian human resource pool. Add to the mix, the fifth largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves, and you have a country that is bound to become a powerhouse once sanctions are lifted. This has caused panic among the Saudis. It is hard to say whether the Saudis genuinely believe they can quash Tehrans rise or whether they are just playing to improve their hand in their settlement with Tehran in the new power structure of the region.
The conflict in has taken centre stage in Pakistani politics. For the first time since its inception, there is outright opposition to joining hands with Saudi Arabia in the fight. Mr Sharifs regime is highly indebted to Saudi Arabia for all the help it has received and the countrys security apparatus sees a short-term financial benefit in joining Saudis. The problem is that Saudi-exported extremism has led to a mass aversion to joining anything Saudi. This support and opposition both are rooted in a not so deep an analysis of available options.
Pakistan has a role to play in the Middle East primarily because, in the end, with a dominant Iran, the region will need a power broker whom the Sunnis of the region trust and one that is also approachable by Tehran. That calls for remaining friends with the Arabs while not alienating Iran. If Pakistan decides to join the Arab coalition, it will be at the centre of the coalition because of its demographics and military power. This, however, will lead to a regional order that will be marred by perpetual chaos. This will also lead to internal security threats on account of sectarianism and Balochistan. Recalibrating this role to Chinas and the USs commercial and geopolitical interests will also be a challenge.
If Pakistan opts to stay out of the conflict, sooner or later, it will force the Arabs to revise their assumption about their relative power in the new order and will put Pakistan at the table with Iran and global powers to define a regional order. The road to that order will be chaotic but, because of its proximity to geopolitical, demographic and economic realities in the region, that order will be smoother. What we want for us is the key to deciding whether we want to jump into this conflict or stay out of it. Till we figure that out we better stay away from jumping into the conflict. Pakistan has a role to play in the Middle East in the decades ahead. That opportunity must be well thought through and should not be marred by the short-term economic interests of a few.