Neutrality under question
Hussain H Zaidi
April 18, 2015

The United Nations Security Council’s decision to impose an arms embargo on the Houthis together with the call that they must immediately vacate the territory they have seized and seek a political solution to the problem is significant in several respects.

The resolution tips the scales in the Yemen conflict. Only one side in the civil war has been placed under sanctions. No ceasefire has been ordered to deal with the humanitarian crisis. The Houthis have been left on their own against the combined might of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which may continue bombing them without hindrance.

The UNSC resolution has thus put its full weight behind the Saudi stance on Yemen: that the Houthis should first lay down their arms before diplomatic efforts can start to resolve the conflict. In case the Houthis do not pull back, it is likely that a subsequent UNSC resolution will authorise multilateral action against them. Game, set, match for the Saudis. They could not have asked for more at this stage.

Only China and Russia could have blocked the UNSC decision. Moscow, facing the heat of stringent western sanctions, thought discretion was the better part of valour and thus opted to abstain; while Beijing, itself wary of non-state actors, backed the resolution.

For the Saudis, the significance of the UNSC decision goes well beyond the Yemen conflict. It sends out the message that the US is not going to leave Saudi Arabia in the lurch while on course to detente with Iran. The Saudis were uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with the thaw in Washington-Tehran relations, which they suspected would be at their expense. The latest American gesture, reflected by the world body’s resolution, would reassure Riyadh that it can continue to count on the globe’s sole superpower.

At the same time, Iran has been warned in so many words that it should not try to get too big for its boots, that the US still is not prepared to wink at its ‘support’ to the insurgencies in the region and that it may brace itself for more sanctions in case it doesn’t hold itself in check.

The resolution is also significant for Pakistan, which has been walking a tight rope in its efforts to stay neutral over the Yemen conflict.

The decision to adopt a neutral posture in the stand-off, rather than join the Saudi Arabia-led coalition against the Houthis unconditionally, was taken following the resolution adopted at the April 6-10 joint session of parliament.

The resolution called upon the government to “maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis...” Giving a rationale for neutrality, the preamble to the resolution noted that the war in Yemen, though not sectarian, “has the potential to turn into a sectarian conflict, which will have a critical fallout in the region including Pakistan...”

The same resolution, carefully drafted as it was, however, affirmed ‘unequivocal’ support for Saudi Arabia in case either the kingdom’s territorial integrity was ‘violated’ or the sanctity of the holy places came under threat.

The word ‘violated’ was very significant in that its use ruled out siding with the holy kingdom merely in the face of a threat to its territorial integrity. The Yemeni conflict might have threatened, or might reach such proportions as to endanger, Saudi security. The very notion of threat is rooted in subjectivity. The threat may not be actual and may be only a perception. However, going by the resolution, Pakistan’s support [sending troops] to Saudi Arabia is supposed to come through only when the gulf state is actually attacked – which has always been at best a distant possibility.

The resolution thus prevented Pakistan, and rightly so, from getting embroiled in the latest Middle East crisis. Not only that, the call for tackling the crisis through talks was a rebuff to the Saudi stance that the Houthis must lay down their arms before the option of sorting the problems out through mediation may be explored.

Not surprisingly, the declaration of neutrality did not go down well with Riyadh and its GCC allies, which had pinned higher hopes on Islamabad. A junior UAE minister was commissioned to mouthpiece the Gulf States’ displeasure.

Mincing no words while describing Pakistan’s position as ‘dangerous’ and ‘unexpected,’ the minister sent out the warning that Pakistan would pay a ‘high price’ for its ‘ambiguous stand’. The minister also accused Pakistan of choosing Iran over the Gulf nations at a time when they faced an “existential confrontation” in the Yemen situation. In other words, if Pakistan is not with the Arab states, it’s against them. This is the language of power and arrogance.

The minister’s argument was based on two premises – both invalid: one, that the Gulf States were facing an existential threat at the hands of the Houthis; two, that Pakistan faced a choice between siding with the Saudis and siding with Iran. In fact, the choice that Pakistan faced was between getting entangled in a conflict that has strong sectarian connotations and maintaining a neutral posture. The Yemen civil war may not be rooted in sectarianism but, as in the case of many other Middle East conflicts, sectarianism is a major driver of it.

Yemen, like most other Middle Eastern countries, is a Sunni majority country with a substantial Shia population. The Houthis profess a sub-sect of the Shia Islam and took up arms to protest their ‘marginalisation’ and the ‘promotion’ of the Wahabis.

From a wider perspective, the war in Yemen may be seen as yet another contest for show of strength between Saudi Arabia and Iran, each wanting to shape the region as per its own interests. They are two powerful players in the Middle East, neighbouring weak and instable states such as Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Both have been supporting state and non-state actors in neighbouring countries to save or topple the governments. To be sure, the domestic conflicts in those countries were not the making of Iran or Saudi Arabia; the conflicts were indigenous in origin but the two countries added fuel to the fire by providing both hard and soft power to the belligerents.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which has fallen short of a head-on confrontation, is reminiscent of the US-USSR cold war, though on a much smaller scale and in a much narrower sphere. The regional upheaval consequent upon the Arab Spring only served to intensify the turf war.

Pakistan, therefore, did well to keep its hands off the Yemeni conflict. But with the UN taking sides in the confrontation, it may be difficult for Islamabad to stay on the neutrality course. Already, the country’s strong economic links with the Gulf States, particularly in the form of two million Pakistanis residing in the region who have been sending hefty remittances back home, have been touted as a justification for the country to jump into the conflict on the side of the Saudis.

The author is a graduate from a western European university.

Published in The News