How do you turn down someone who has given you $1.5 billion, discounted oil, and sanctuary when your enemies were calling for your head? That’s the dilemma Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faces. His government needs to respond to Saudi Arabia’s request for troops, warships and airplanes in its military campaign against the Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels who have taken over large parts of Yemen. The campaign, which began on March 25, is the latest escalation in an increasingly violent tussle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who happen to be on opposing sides of a sectarian divide within Islam. Their proxy war is already taking place in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and now with Yemen it has just become deadlier.

Yemen ousted its long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh during the Arab Spring in 2011. And like other Arab countries, it has struggled to come up with a replacement. A weak Saudi-backed government put in place after Saleh’s ouster struggled to provide basic services to Yemeni citizens and incurred the ire of the Houthis, who wanted greater participation in the political process. The Houthis occupy swathes of territory in western Yemen, close to the Saudi border, and in a military push they took over the capital Sana’a, prompting the president to flee. The Saudi-backed government moved the capital to the port city of Aden in an emergency move, but the rebels are moving in there as well. In response, Saudi Arabia, perturbed both by the perceived Iranian influence as well as the rise of a belligerent (read, Shia) regime close to its borders put together a coalition of Arab states including Egypt, Jordan and Qatar – with tacit support from the United States – to pre-emptively defeat the Houthis.

Now you must be wondering what Pakistan is doing amidst all this, and frankly many Pakistanis are asking themselves the same. First there is the threat of a sectarian conflict within Pakistan. Although most Pakistanis are Sunnis, the country has the largest Shia population outside of Iran. The sectarian tensions that already run relatively deep here threaten to go out of control if Pakistan gets involved in Yemen, which is the last thing the country needs right now.

Overstretched military

Then there is Iran. Pakistan shares a long border with Iran and relations between the two nations have recently been tense. Both are threatened by a Baloch insurgency, but instead of cooperating, they share a mutual suspicion and accuse each other of harbouring insurgents. Just this week, eight Iranian border guards were killed in clashes with militants on the frontier. The Iranian government claimed that the militants came from Pakistan and expects Islamabad to do something about it. (It better.) There is also the question of a languishing gas pipeline that on paper both countries have signed up for, but only Tehran has completed on its side. Islamabad has delayed completing the project under American pressure. While under the agreement Iran can extract fines from Pakistan for this failure, it has not done so as yet, and Pakistan would prefer to keep it that way. (In an effort to reduce tensions, China has offered to complete the pipeline for Pakistan.)

Lastly, there is the logistics of it all. Despite its size, the Pakistan army is rather stretched at the moment. A customarily heavy presence along the border with India persists, while a large-scale military operation against militants in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan continues. With large contingents of soldiers tied up, Islamabad cannot afford to devote many troops, weapons or equipment to the Saudi cause. As is probable, Pakistani involvement in Yemen would also inadvertently require a greater military presence on the Pakistan-Iran border, stretching the army even thinner.

None of these reasons help Pakistanis answer why they should bother intervening in Yemen. And to their credit, politicians know this. They unanimously passed a resolution stating that the parliament “desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality” in the conflict. A visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif might have also helped. But this is Pakistan, and things are hardly as simple.

No way out?

First, the parliament does not actually decide Pakistan’s foreign policy. The military does. So whether the parliament resolution or even Sharif’s actions have any bearing on what Pakistan eventually does is uncertain. The fact that the operative word in that neutrality clause was “desires” tells you that wanting to be neutral is very different from actually being neutral. On his trip to Pakistan, Zarif visited both the army headquarters as well as the prime minister’s office, driving home the ambiguity over where the ultimate decision will be made by Rawalpindi or Islamabad.

Second, it doesn’t look like Saudi Arabia would allow Pakistan to be neutral. The Kingdom has recently been Pakistan’s greatest benefactor and has considerable sway over its decision. Last year, the Saudis mysteriously gifted Pakistan $1.5 billion to prop up its dwindling reserves and flagging economy. It has provided discounted oil and put in large amounts of money in Pakistani coffers for activities as varied as hunting endangered birds to creating a shadow madrassa system across the country. Sharif’s relations with the Saudis also go deep. After he was deposed by the army in the 1999 coup, the Saudis brokered a deal that not only allowed Sharif to leave the country, thus avoiding the execution that befell the last civilian ruler to be overthrown, but also hosted him during his years in exile.

The military’s ties to Saudi Arabia are also strong. Only recently, Pakistan provided military personnel (but not serving troops) to help Saudi Arabia and Bahrain break up the (again, predominantly Shia) protests that began during the Arab spring. There have also been loud rumours that Pakistan is willing to transfer its nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia if requested. Given Pakistan’s commitment to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the Saudis in case there is a violation of their “territorial integrity”, the question of the extent of Pakistani involvement in Yemen is still very much in the air. Pakistani diplomats have been trying, along with Turkey, to solve the conflict diplomatically, but Riyadh will probably not look kindly to Pakistani weaselling out of an explicit request for military help. Saudi Arabia matters a lot more to Pakistan than Iran, and Pakistan has already put its lot in with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-led coalition. The question still is: how much is it willing to commit, and at what cost?