Pakistan on Saturday said the decision to send its troops to Saudi Arabia was taken after clarifying the “rules of engagement” for which negotiations were ongoing for some time.
Defence Minister Khurram Dastigir Khan said the role of Pakistani troops was limited to advisory and training to Saudi forces.
“Negotiations were ongoing regarding the rules of engagement and once we attained clarity on the issue that the troops will be on training and advisory mission to strengthen the ground defence of Saudi Arabia, the troops were sent,” he told a News last night.
He ruled out any involvement in the Yemen civil war but said that Pakistan will not provide any air defence against missiles by Houthi rebels.
“We only want to train their forces and better advise them. The areas bordering Yemen are mountainous, and as Pakistan’s army is highly trained in mountain warfare, we will train and advise them,” he said.
In a major policy shift, Pakistan decided to 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.
The 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.
Separately, a media reported that the deployment of troops was sanctioned by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as part of a longstanding defence cooperation between Islamabad and Riyadh.
Currently, there are 1,379 Pakistani troops deployed in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are from Pakistan Army, along with air force and navy officials, according to security sources.
The exact number of troops being sent is not known, but the fresh deployment is said to be slightly over 1,000 soldiers, according to the newspaper.
Security sources also clarified that there is nothing new about the deployment of Pakistani troop in the oil-rich kingdom, as defence cooperation with Saudi Arabia is based on a 1982 bilateral protocol for training and advisory roles.
The report said defence cooperation in the Persian Gulf is not limited to Riyadh, as there is currently a deployment of 627 Pakistani troops in Qatar, including 165 from the army and 462 from the navy and air force.
Islamabad also maintains a similar working relationship with Iran, which currently has 10 pilots in training with the Pakistan military.
The Iranians will be sending five more pilots “sometime in April” and even “more in subsequent years,” sources said.
Pakistan has stayed away from the conflict in Yemen where Iran strongly opposes the involvement of the Saudi-led military coalition.
In November last year, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Tehran where he met top Iranian civil and military leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani.
Bajwa has also visited Saudi Arabia five times in his first year in charge.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been involved in a number of joint training exercises in recent months, the most recent being a joint naval exercise in Karachi codenamed Affa Al-Sahil, which concluded on Friday.
The exercise has been performed annually since 2011 and aims to enhance interoperability and sharpen tactical proficiency in countering maritime human trafficking, piracy and terrorism.
Meanwhile, naval exercises are currently underway between Pakistan and Saudi Arabian marines in Saudi waters.
Saudi special services participated in the last Pakistan Day parade, while there are currently 200 Saudi cadets in the Pakistan Military Academy, PAF Academy, and Naval Academy.
A source said that last year, close to 1,500 Saudi officers and soldiers were trained in Pakistan, mostly by the interior ministry.