Pakistan has recently announced that it is sending troops to Saudi Arabia on a "training and advice mission," without specifying the exact number of soldiers and the role the soldiers will play there.
There are already 1,671 Pakistani servicemen deployed in Saudi Arabia, most of them are from Pakistan Army, along with a few Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Pakistan Navy (PN) officials, according to security sources.
Pakistan Army announced the deployment decision after a meeting between Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Nawaf Saeed al-Maliki at the army headquarters in the eastern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi on February 15, 2018.
It came after Gen. Bajwa paid a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia earlier in February and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Commander of Ground Forces Lt. Gen. Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz.
Some sources claimed that the Pakistan army is sending a brigade of combat troops to shore up Saudi Arabia’s vulnerable southern border from reprisal attacks mounted by the Houthis in Yemen. The brigade will be based in the south of the Kingdom, but will only be deployed inside its border.
Saudi Arabia has been pushing Pakistan since 2015 to take part in the Saudi led coalition's military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. Pakistan’s parliament, however, has decided against the deployment of Pakistani forces to avoid backlash from sizeable Pakistani Shia Muslim community (about 20% of the Pakistani population) and deterioration in relations with neighboring Iran, which is supporting the Houthis in Yemen.
The policy shift comes as former Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is the current head of the so-called Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), which is based in Riyadh. Sharif has already won Bin Salman's trust and convinced Pakistani military officials to further expand military ties with Saudi Arabia.
The deployment of Pakistani troops would not be the first in relations between the two states. Pakistan has long been involved in protecting Saudi Arabia:
- Pakistan assisted the formation of the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) in the 1960s and trained its first pilots. Pakistani combat pilots also flew RSAF British Lightning fighter jets during the al-Wadiah conflict between Saudi Arabia and the People's Republic of South Yemen in 1969.
- Pakistani combat troops assisted Saudi forces in suppressing the Grand Mosque seizure, which occurred between November and December 1979.
- Under a bilateral security cooperation agreement struck in 1982, Pakistan has accepted to help Saudi Arabia with military training, defense production, and joint military exercises. Nearly 15,000 Pakistani troops were posted in Saudi Arabia throughout the 1980s.
- Forces from Pakistan were based in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War when the kingdom feared attack by Saddam Hussein. Up to 13,000 Pakistani troops and 6,000 advisors were posted in Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
- Pakistani troops have frequently taken part in maneuvers inside Saudi Arabia alongside Saudi Armed Forces.
Islamabad and Riyadh have close military and security relationship, with troops from Pakistan's army regularly deployed for training Saudi soldiers.
Saudi military is well-equipped with advanced European and American arms, but the kingdom’s combat forces are not experienced and perform with limited success in the war against the Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia hopes that the Pakistani Army would support the upgrading of their ground forces capabilities.
No official figures on the number of additional Pakistan troops being sent to the kingdom have been released, but analysts said that the recent deployment is said to be between 1,000-2000 soldiers.
If the latest deployment of Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia goes ahead, it will be a sign of improvement in the ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states since the low point of 2015.