In private conversation, Saudi leaders bitterly accuse Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of stabbing them in the back, reneging on his pledge of armed force just when they are in the throes of an operation to curtail the conquest of Yemen by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. They charge him with blatantly violating their unwritten defense pact, which Saudi Arabia honored by bankrolling the development and maintenance of the Pakistan nuclear bomb and underwriting the bulk of its military budget.
Having forked out tens of billions of dollars since 2001 to buy Pakistan as its security mainstay, Riyadh sees it disappearing in the far distance at crunch time.
The Saudi royals are especially pained on the personal level. They gave Sharif asylum in Riyadh and money in his pocket to keep him going during the seven years he was on the run from his enemies at home (1999-2008). In 2013, they helped him return to power.
Now, the Pakistani prime minister is denying Saudi Arabia, his former patron, the army division he promised for securing the kingdom’s southern provinces of Assir and Najran against cross-border raids and threatened invasion by the Shiite rebels.
Pakistan defects to Iran for gas and Chinese largesse
The Saudis have three issues with the Pakistani prime minister:
1. His deviousness: Instead of telling Riyadh straight out that he wouldn’t or couldn’t put up Pakistani troops as back-up for the Saudi-led coalition’s Yemen campaign, he pushed the issue onto the Pakistani parliament, knowing he could count on a veto, which was indeed forthcoming on April 10.
Sharif piously assured Riyadh and its Arab allies that he was committed to Saudi Arabia as “a strategic ally”, and explained that “their disappointment was based on an apparent misinterpretation of the parliament’s resolution.”
He not only failed to smooth ruffled feathers; he drew cynical snorts from Riyadh and the emirates.
2. DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources report that the last straw came from the discovery that Sharif had not only betrayed them but jumped into bed with Iran, the very power the Arab coalition was fighting in Yemen, to cash in on Chinese financing for an Iranian gas pipeline to Pakistan (a project outlined in detail in a separate article).
Riyadh and the emirates concluded that the catalyst for Sharif’s defection was the nuclear understandings the six world powers and Iran had reached in Lausanne.
The damage to Saudi Arabia’s most vital interests is immeasurable.
Riyadh seeks new nuclear, missile sources
(a) By ditching Saudi Arabia in favor of Iran, the Pakistani leader dealt a mortal blow to the oil kingdom’s self-perception as the region’s leading strategic and security power.
(b) Islamabad’s denial of conventional military aid for Saudi Arabia placed in question its guarantee of a nuclear shield in repayment for Riyadh’s massive investment in Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and ballistic missile programs.
(c) The Sino-Pakistani-Iranian strategic economic projects getting underway have also placed a second large question mark over Beijing’s willingness to go through with the deal still in mid-transaction for supplying the Saudis with nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
The Saudis and the emirates find themselves at sea as a result of Pakistan’s about face. They are casting about urgently for optional replacements for Pakistan’s nuclear guarantee and Chinese ballistic missiles, but for the moment see only three, far from satisfactory, prospects: Russia, France and reliance on security understandings with Israel on the Jordanian model.
Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually closed the pathway to Moscow Monday, April 13, when he lifted the embargo on advanced S-300 air defense missile defense systems to enable Iran to intercept warplanes and cruise and other missiles.
Saudi Air Force fighter-bombers are not equipped with the electronic devices necessary for disabling these weapons. Once Iran gets the S-300, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, whose air force is the largest in the Gulf region, will lose the capacity to attack Iran by air or missile.
In the case of France, although French air force fighters are based in the oil kingdom and its warships, including the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, berthed in the UAE, both forces are too small to provide the Arab nations of the Gulf region with an effective military shield.
There is not much to report on the Israel option. Saudi Arabia and Israel are in quiet intelligence collaboration, which has expanded rapidly in the last three years. But those ties are nowhere near evolving into a full-fledged strategic alliance.
After Pakistan’s defection, Egypt disappoints Riyadh
Riyadh is not much happier with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi than it is with Nawaz Sharif.
The guns of Egyptian warships have ceaselessly pounded Houthi forces and their allies, the Yemeni Army’s 212nd Brigade, and stopped them from seizing control of the strategic Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Yemeni port of Aden. But, although Egypt is at least providing some back-up for the Saudi air campaign, Cairo has disappointed Saudi expectations of air and ground support.
Although both disappointed Riyadh, Pakistan and Egypt had been assigned different roles: While the former was asked to station troops on Saudi soil to defend its borders, the latter was supposed to contribute special operations units, including marines, to defend the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and fight alongside Yemeni government troops to save Aden from falling into rebel hands.
Unlike Sharif, the Egyptian president turned Riyadh down bluntly. He made it clear that Egyptian troops would hit the ground in Yemen only when Saudi Arabia put its own boots there. So long as Riyadh confined itself to air strikes, Cairo would stick to naval operations.
A joint military exercise in lieu of ground troops for Yemen
This went down badly in Saudi and UAE capitals, especially in consideration of the largesse they pour into Egypt’s coffers to keep its economy afloat and pay for its arms acquisitions.
After they hinted that the flow of funds to Cairo might be in jeopardy, Egypt tweaked its refusal.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the Egyptians are now saying that if Saudi Arabia starts deploying ground forces inside the kingdom, Egypt would send a small task force of 1,000 men to take part in the Yemen operation.
Before making this adjustment, Egypt’s Defense Minister Col. Gen. Sidki Sobhi traveled to Islamabad to establish at first hand what had caused Pakistan to back away from allotting ground forces for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
From there, he proceeded to Riyadh. On April 9, he sat down with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to study Riyadh’s war plans in Yemen. The two agreed to form a joint military committee to discuss the “implementation of a large-scale strategic maneuver in the territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Other Gulf Arab countries would also participate.
This decision was confirmed by the Egyptian president’s office Wednesday, April 15, without details of the planned military exercise or its timeline.
Pakistan and Cairo duck the risk of a showdown with Iran
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, this war game may be designed to open out into the introduction of ground troops to the Yemen conflict – both by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Cairo would then make good on its vague offer of ground troops – “if necessary.”
For now, Saudi rulers are understandably asking themselves: How come that the two nations whose military spending is most generously supported by Riyadh – and in Egypt’s case, its civilian budget to boot – have no qualms about turning Saudi Arabia down when it comes to armed support?
There are two answers: In the first place, neither Pakistan nor Egypt ever intended to meet their military obligations toward Riyadh; and in the second, strategic conditions in the region have undergone a radical metamorphosis in the light of the advantages Iran has extracted from the US and world powers in lieu of a dubious nuclear deal.
Both Islamabad and Cairo are rethinking their options to avoid the risk of a showdown with Iran, the rising regional power.