Sceptred Sway

A war in Yemen exposes the chinks in Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia

01 May 2015

IN THE 1960S, a proxy war broke out in Yemen. At the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian leader, was determined to spread his doctrine of pan-Arabism in the region. From his base of power in mighty Cairo, Nasser began stirring a revolt among the Yemeni soldiery with the aim of dislodging the monarchy there, in much the same manner he had overthrown Egypt’s own King Farouk a decade earlier. Fearful of the spread of secular nationalism, the Saudi monarchy extended its support to the royalists propping up Yemen’s Zaydi throne, freshly vacated by the death of Imam Ahmed, a clownish figure whose private amusements were said to include drowning dwarves and playing with toy trains.

The Saudis couldn’t challenge the Egyptians alone, so they enlisted, among others (including Iran), the support of Pakistan—a fellow Muslim country eager to operate as a pro-American ally in the Cold War. During his reign, General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, dispatched Pakistani pilots who slipped into Saudi-marked jets to strafe the republicans from the air, while Pakistani weaponry was lucratively hawked to the ultimately triumphant royalists on the ground.

Half a century later, following a series of complex Yemeni tribal struggles, history attempts to repeat itself. In 2015, it is the Zaydis, in the form of Houthi rebels, ranged against the Saudis, who began to conduct air strikes in Yemen in March. The Houthis have formed an alliance with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose brutal and venal dictatorship lasted over three decades before ending in 2012. The Saudis back his successor and former deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and fear that the Houthis represent a front for the Saudis’ chief rivals for regional influence—the Iranians.

Omar Waraich  has covered Pakistan since 2007, writing for TIME, the New Yorker, The Independent and others. He is a former SAIS-John Hopkins International Reporting Project Fellow.