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August 3, 2014

Pakistani troops to defend jittery Saudis

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The Times of London reported Saturday, August 2, 2014, that Saudi Arabia has deployed thousands of troops from Egypt and Pakistan along its frontier with Iraq, amid fears of invasion by the al-Qaeda splinter group that has declared a radical Islamic state across the border.

The Times quoted Gulf security sources as saying that panicked by the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham  (ISIS), Riyadh has taken the drastic step of calling in military assistance from its close allies to shore up the porous 500-mile border.

Saudi Arabia has been strengthening its border defenses since the crisis began, the paper said adding:  "King Abdullah promised that “all necessary measures” would be taken to defend the world’s largest oil producer and 30,000 extra troops were deployed along the Iraqi frontier in July. It now appears, however, that many of those soldiers were foreign."

The reported Pakistani troops deployment followed reports in March last that Pakistan was sending 30,000 troops to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. The speculations were strengthened by a sudden and unexpected payment of $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, with no coherent explanation, with some officials calling an aid, then a grant, then aid, then a gift. The mystery deepened when it emerged that Saudi Arabia had purchased weapons systems from Pakistan.

In April last, Pakistan Today reported that Pakistan will sell JF-17 Thunder jets to Saudi Arabia, after the kingdom had given a grant of $1.5 billion to Pakistan.  Pakistan is producing JF-17 Thunder Jet with the Chinese cooperation.

It may be recalled that in January last,  a high profile Saudi Arabian defense delegation led by the Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud, visited Pakistan after the two countries agreed on 'enhanced defense ties' during a trip by the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal to Islamabad earlier. The two countries described the warming of bilateral defense ties as the beginning of a ‘new era in the strategic partnership’ between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Defense delegation stayed in Pakistan for three days. It was hosted at the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, Air Defense Command of Pakistan Air Force, Pakistan Ordnance Factories at Wah and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra, the home of JF-17 Thunder aircraft. The Saudi defense delegation also included the members of the Royal Saudi Air Force, during the visit to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. Saudi Arabia has reportedly expressed interest in joining the JF-17 program with Pakistan during the visit. Pakistan has offered Saudi Arabia for joint manufacturing of JF-17 Thunder aircraft along with technology transfer.

According to London-based Saudi scholar Dr. Mai Yamani, the visit of Saudi Defense delegation was intended to lay the groundwork to bring 30,000 Pakistani soldiers and military advisers to the kingdom. In an article published by the Japan Times, Mai Yamani pointed out that "Pakistan has previously served the kingdom’s interests by sending military and security assistance during times of stress. Saudi Arabia received some 30,000 Pakistani soldiers in 1979, at the time of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. And these troops remained in the kingdom until the mid-1980s. The Saudis also employed thousands of Pakistani soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War.

Mai Yamani believes that part of the Saudi plan today is to use Pakistanis as the backbone for a new Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint military force. "Pakistani forces under Saudi command were used in operations to quell Shiite uprisings in Bahrain in 2011, and the Saudis now want a standby force ready to put down Islamist and Shiite provocations whenever and wherever they may appear in the gulf. In the event of an existential threat in the region, in particular a confrontation with Iran, Pakistan would offer the kingdom a form of deadly protection denied it by the West" she concluded.

Pakistan has a deep rooted military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. According to Washington-based Brookings Institution, the Pak-Saudia cooperation began with Pakistan's help to the Royal Saudi Air Force to build and pilot its first jet fighters in the 1960s. "Pakistani Air Force pilots flew RSAF Lightnings that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border in 1969. In the 1970s and 1980s up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the kingdom, some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border."

In May 1998 when Pakistan was deciding whether to respond to India’s test of five nuclear weapons, the Saudis promised 50,000 barrels per day of free oil to help the Pakistanis cope with the economic sanctions that might be triggered by a counter test, according to the Brookings . "The Saudi oil commitment was a key to then Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif’s decision to proceed with testing. It cushioned the subsequent U.S. and EU sanctions on Pakistan considerably."

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America