In a major policy shift, Pakistan will deploy troops in Saudi Arabia under an existing bilateral security cooperation agreement with its close ally which is involved in a civil war in neighbouring Yemen.
Pakistan Army announced the decision to send troops on a “training and advise mission” to Saudi Arabia after a meeting between Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Saudi ambassador to Pakistan Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi on Thursday.
“In continuation of ongoing Pak-Saudi bilateral security cooperation, a Pakistan Army contingent is being sent to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on training and advise mission. These or troops already there will not be employed outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Pakistan Army said in a brief statement.
It also said the army “maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other Gulf/regional countries”.
The move comes three years after Pakistan decided against sending soldiers to join the Saudi-led military intervention in strife-torn Yemen.
Already around 1,000 Pakistani troops are deployed in Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Islamabad, in various advisory and training roles, the Dawn newspaper quoted officials as saying.
There was no official word on the number of additional troops being sent to kingdom but the paper quoted “multiple sources” hinting that it might be the size of a composite brigade.
It also quoted army spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor that the new deployment would be much lesser than a division, and that he would give details later.
Saudi Arabia has been pushing fellow Sunni-majority Pakistan to provide troops since 2015 when it joined Yemen’s civil war but Pakistan steadily refused, saying it would not become party to any regional conflict.
The civil war in Yemen stalemated and the situation has aggravated with the rebels firing missiles at regular intervals towards the kingdom.
The alliance of Muslim nations set up by Saudi Arabia and led by former Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif is also still in an early stage to play any role in the conflict.
Gen. Bajwa earlier this month visited Saudi Arabia for three days and met officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Commander of Ground Forces Lt Gen Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz.
It was his second visit to the kingdom in two months and reportedly played a role in Pakistan’s decision to deploy troops.
Pakistan is treading a fine line in maintaining relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and other regional players and the decision of deploying troops may annoy Saudi Arabia’s rivals like Iran and Qatar.
Gen. Bajwa has been playing a major role in addressing concerns of regional countries and met with ambassadors of Iran and Turkey earlier this week. He also recently visited Qatar and met its ‘emir’
The decision may also create tension in Pakistan’s internal politics as parliament had passed a resolution at the start of the Yemen crisis that said Pakistan would stay neutral in the conflict.
Senator Farhatullah Babar on Friday raised objections over the Pakistan Army’s deployment to Saudi Arabia, terming the development as “tantamount to bypassing the parliament”.
Drawing the attention of the Senate to the matter, the Pakistan Peoples Party leader called the deployment to Saudi an issue of public importance. He said he had also given an adjournment notice to discuss the issue, Dawn newspaper reported.
Criticising the Foreign Office, the senator termed its condemnations against Houthi missile attacks as “nuanced statements”, alleging that the FO has been paving the way and providing false justifications for the army deployment.
Meanwhile, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani has summoned Defence Minister Khurrum Dastagir and he is expected to appear before the House on Monday to deliver a policy statement on the recent development, the report said.