SHAFAQNA – As Pakistani ministers visited Riyadh last week to discuss a Saudi request for support in the military campaign in Yemen, Syed Raza Agha, a politician in Quetta, warned of “getting it wrong and living with the consequences”.
The main Shia Muslim lawmaker in the provincial legislature of Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan, Mr Agha is bracing himself for violence.
“I can see the coming turmoil with bloodshed, as we take sides in this new war between the Shia and the Sunnis in the Middle East,” he says. “The bloodbath will play itself out in my very own city, my neighbourhood.”
Mr Agha’s fears are shared by many Pakistani Shia, who make up about
20 per cent of the 185m population. They see the country being sucked into a savage conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s mainly Shia Houthi rebels, who are backed by Shia-led Iran.
Driving to his office every morning on Quetta’s Alamdar Road, Mr Agha is reminded of one of the many massacres of Shia in Baluchistan — an attack on a snooker club in 2013 in which more than 100 people were killed. The crossroads near the club was renamed Chowk Shuhada, or martyrs’ intersection.
Analysts attribute many of the attacks to hardline Sunni militants with Saudi funding. Such groups have proliferated across Pakistan and Afghanistan since the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan led to US and Saudi backing for mujahideen resistance fighters.
Saudi Arabia also funded scores of madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, dedicated to spreading the kingdom’s ultraconservative ideology.
Quetta’s 500,000 Shia are mostly Hazara, who trace their lineage to Genghis Khan’s invading Mongol armies. To many of them, the Saudi intervention in Yemen is a powerful reminder of divisions between the two main Islamic sects that date back 14 centuries.
Mr Agha says attacks on Shia have risen rapidly since the post-9/11, US-led campaign in Afghanistan. “We joined the American war in Afghanistan and as a result Pakistan saw more bloodshed,” he says. “Now, as we join the Saudis, are we likely to see more again?”
The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has yet to announce if it will join the Saudi-led coalition — but it has hinted at support. A cabinet minister told the Financial Times yesterday Islamabad would agree to the Saudi request for military help in Yemen.
Last week, Mr Sharif said Pakistan “considers the security of the holy land [Saudi Arabia] of the utmost importance” and warned “violation of the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia would evoke a strong reaction from Pakistan”.
Officials say Mr Sharif considers himself personally beholden to the Saudis — he lived in exile in the kingdom for almost seven years after being forced from power in a 1999 military coup.
But western diplomats note that Pakistan’s armed forces are tied up fighting Taliban militants along the Afghan border. “The army will never compromise on its duties at home,” says one.
In return for assistance, Mr Sharif’s government may receive further financial support from the Saudis to bolster Pakistan’s weak economic prospects, the diplomat adds. The Saudis provided $1.5bn to Pakistan last year.
But another diplomat adds that Pakistan’s divisions will grow irrespective of the scale of contributions to Riyadh’s campaign. “It is about deployments under the Saudi flag. I suspect that [the deployment] will sharpen the divide.”
Shia in Quetta warn that the government will struggle to prevent Sunni militant violence. “On the ground, no one will be able to challenge the attacks,” says Syed Muhammad Hadi, a young Shia activist campaigning to raise funds for families killed by Sunni militants.
In Kuchlak, a Quetta suburb visibly dominated by pro-Taliban hardliners, the Al-Saudia restaurant, with a poster-sized image of King Salman prominently on display, bears testimony to Saudi influence over local hardliners.
An official in Quetta describes the eatery as just “the tip of the iceberg”. Across Baluchistan, he says, “the Saudis have expanded their footprint”.
He warns if Pakistan increases its support for the kingdom, its own stability could be at risk if Sunni militants “decide it is time to step up attacks” on the country’s Shia population.