Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to contribute aircraft, ships and ground troops to its coalition fighting rebels in Yemen, the Pakistani defense minister said on Monday.
Khawaja Asif spoke at the start of a special parliamentary debate on whether to join the Saudi-led military intervention against Shia Houthi rebels trying to overthrow President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is due to visit Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss the situation, Asif added.
Shia Iran has strongly criticized the intervention in Yemen by the coalition of largely Sunni Muslim nations, accusing Saudi Arabia of sowing instability with its air campaign. Despite close and longstanding relations with Riyadh, Pakistan has so far held back from joining the fight, calling for a negotiated settlement and saying it does not want to get involved in any conflict that would inflame sectarian tensions.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the special session of Parliament last week, saying any decision on intervention could only come after proper debate.
Asif was part of a high-level political and military delegation that visited Saudi Arabia last week to assess the situation. He repeated the government’s position that Pakistan was ready to defend Saudi territorial integrity.
“There should be no ambiguity that if the security of Saudi territory is at stake Pakistan will stand by for support,” he told lawmakers. “Saudi Arabia has requested us for aircraft, naval vessels and ground troops.”
Pakistan faces a tricky dilemma over the intervention in Yemen. It has long enjoyed military ties with Riyadh and has benefited hugely from the oil-rich kingdom’s largesse over the years. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also has close personal ties to the Saudis, who sheltered him when he was overthrown in a military coup in 1999.
Sharif visited Turkey on Friday for talks with his counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu aimed at finding a way to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Sharif joined the parliamentary debate late Monday after meeting visiting Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.
He had earlier chaired a high-level meeting “to discuss matters relating to national security and situation in the middle east,” his office said in a statement, without giving further details.
During the debate, Aitzaz Ahsan, the opposition leader in the Senate said Pakistan “can play a key diplomatic role to end this war through diplomacy.”
Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, also called for diplomacy. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of Pakistan’s largest religious party, said Sharif’s government could mediate the crisis.
The debate, which will continue on Wednesday, came as a senior official in Pakistan’s defense ministry told AFP that a “delegation of Egyptian defense officials is expected to visit Islamabad on Tuesday.”
Like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is majority Sunni Muslim, but 20 percent of its population is Shia and the government is wary of fanning sectarian discord at home. Pakistan also borders Shia power Iran, which has condemned the Saudi-led strikes on Yemen. Concerns have also been voiced in Pakistan about joining the operation when the Army is already stretched at home fighting Taliban militants.