The day-long visit to Islamabad by the powerful Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday helped Pakistan to fine-tune its perspective on the rapidly changing Gulf politics.

Salman met Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The outcome can be summed up as two-fold: first, a resonant (re)assurance by Gen. Sharif that Pakistan stands committed to respond if Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity comes under threat; and, second, Pakistan is willing to mediate the Saudi-Iran rift.

Pakistan immensely values the relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has a history of brotherhood, shared interests and intimate partnership. They were comrades-in-arms as the US’ key ‘non-NATO allies’ in their respective regions during the Cold war era, and, of course, a symbiotic kinship of substantial mutual benefit developed over time.

However, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have different priorities today. Saudi Arabia is obsessed with Iran’s rise, which it sees as an existential challenge. Pakistan too is conscious of Iran’s emergence from isolation but sees it as an opportunity to re-engage and open a new page in the relationship (which was a difficult one while the decades-long US-Iranian confrontation lasted.)

Saudi Arabia feels insecure and is probing a regional axis. It strives to give the regional axis an underpinning by raising the specter of a ‘Shi’ite crescent’ haunting the region.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is bogged down in internal security and its all-consuming focus today is the transition in Afghanistan where it seeks to secure its legitimate long-term interests – namely, a predictable Pak-Afghan relationship, stabilization of border regions, Pakistan’s aspirations as a ‘moderate’ Muslim society with cosmopolitan outlook and as an emerging regional power.

Pakistan is left with scarce surplus energy to get entangled in extra-regional power projection. The refusal to be drawn into the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was highly revealing.

Pakistan hopes to avoid replay of its rivalry with Iran on the Afghan turf and has done its utmost to prevent the resuscitation of the anti-Taliban resistance of the nineties involving Iran, India and Russia. Besides, Iran is becoming a ‘normal’ country.

Being a very rich country with a diverse economy, Iran is a much more engaging than Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan visualizes itself as a bridge connecting China with Iran. There is very big Chinese investment on the anvil in the Pakistan-Iran grid – $46 billion in Pakistan, and, possibly, $42 billion in Iran (which President Xi Jinping may disclose during his forthcoming visit to Tehran on January 23).

Pakistan is disinterested in tapping into ancient passions of Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian schism, which in the past only brought great sorrows. Simply put, Pakistan has a vibrant democracy and does not need an alibi to distinguish itself from Iran’s ‘Islamic democracy’.

At the end of the day, however, Salman would not have returned to Riyadh empty-handed. It all depends on what his mission hoped to achieve, which was ostensibly about Pakistan’s role in the Saudi project of ‘Islamic military coalition’.

There is no clarity yet regarding the ‘Islamic military coalition’. Salman himself ruled out a war with Iran. He told Economist magazine last week: “It (war with Iran) is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind. It will reflect very strongly on the rest of the world. For sure, we will not allow any such thing.”

Equally, Saudi Arabia will not put ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq or Syria. Nor would Riyadh have hoped to change Pakistan’s refusal to fight the Houthis of Yemen.

Nonetheless, Yemen would have been uppermost on Salman’s mind. The Saudi military intervention in Yemen carries his imprimatur. As defense minister, he conducts the war. The official propaganda whipped up nationalist fervor and created the illusion that the military operations have been a resounding success.

But the dismal picture is that the Yemeni war is coming home, finally – exposing the ineptness of Saudi armed forces to defend the country’s borders from predatory strikes from the Houthi coalition forces wreaking revenge.

On December 21, ballistic missiles were fired at the compound of Aramco Oil Company in Jazan Economic City, 150 kilometers from the border with Yemen. On December 28, Qaher-1 ballistic missiles were again fired at Aramco. (Qahaer-1 is the updated version of a Russian surface-to-surface missile.)

On December 23, Al-Faisal military base in Khamis Mushait region of Asir province came under rocket attack. On December 24, the al-Anad military base in Lahij province was hit by Lochka rockets. On December 27, Saudi National Guards Base in the southern city of Najran was hit with ballistic missiles. The Yemeni side claims that within the week, 550 Saudi troops were killed.

Plainly put, military skills are lacking despite expensive training imparted by western instructors, and morale is sapping. Suffice it to say, Salman’s reputation as a military mind has come under cloud.

Importantly, if these attacks continue, the repercussions will be felt in the power rivalries within the House of Saud. The Saudi military capability to defend the borders becomes a reflection on Salman’s leadership qualities.

Who is to fight this indeterminate war that lacks an exit route and promises only humiliation for Saudi Arabia? The hard-headed Pakistani generals would know what prompted Salman to make a dash for Rawalpindi.

In the meeting with Salman, Gen. Sharif reportedly “reasserted that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan”.

Now, the big question is, how strong a “strong response” by Pakistan would be under the circumstances. Deployment of Pakistani troops on the Saudi-Yemen border seems highly unlikely. Perhaps, Pakistan can help Saudi soldiers perform better in the heat of the battle as well as advise them how to prepare the defense lines.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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