Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir says "Pakistan will remain neutral" on the Yemen conflict but the nature of training being imparted to thousands of Saudi soldiers remains unclear.
Pakistan on Monday said that it is training 10,000 Saudi Arabian soldiers, in a sign of growing security cooperation between Riyadh and Islamabad in recent months.
Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir did not offer further details about the presence of such a high number of Saudi soldiers on Pakistan’s soil, and the nature of training being imparted.
Dastagir was giving a policy statement in the senate on a recent government's decision to dispatch 1000 additional troops to the Kingdom.
The statement came after several parliamentarians questioned the decision, fearing that the additional troops might be used against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Some 1,600 Pakistan army officers and troops are already stationed in Saudi Arabia in accordance with a 1982 security protocol between the two sides.
Currently, some 647 Pakistani troops are also stationed in Qatar, and the Pakistani air force is also training 10 Iranian pilots, according to local media.
Neutral on Yemen conflict
"As far as deployment of Pakistanis troops outside the territory of Saudi Arabia or in Yemen is concerned, I want to assure you that it will not happen," the minister said.
"Pakistan will remain neutral regarding any conflict in the Middle East in accordance with the parliament’s guidelines."
Dastagir was referring to a 2015 parliamentary resolution, which stated that Islamabad will not be part of any conflict in the Middle East, particularly Yemen.
A proxy war is playing out in Yemen between Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting Tehran-allied Houthi rebels.
Dastagir's statement, however, further heated up the debate with several members belonging to left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani termed the clarification "insufficient", and demanded elaboration of operational and deployment details.
"I cannot tell that where will these troops be deployed in Saudi Arabia. But let me assure you, they will remain stationed within the Saudi territory," Dastagir said responding to a question from the former interior minister, and a leading PPP figure Aitzaz Ahsan, who said the troops might be deployed at the Yemen border.
Bilateral security cooperation
Earlier, Pakistan's army insisted that neither the fresh contingent nor the already stationed troops would be deployed outside Saudi Arabia.
"These (new batch) or troops already there will not be employed outside KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). Pak Army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other GCC / regional countries," said the statement.
Saudi Arabia, which alone hosts 1.9 million Pakistanis, tops the list of countries with highest remittances to Pakistan - over $4.5 billion annually.
Saudi Arabia is also Pakistan's largest regional trading partner, which in 2017 exported goods and services, mainly oil, to the tune of over $5 billion to Pakistan.