When I worked as a Defence Attaché in the Gulf, my local military driver was often not who I thought he was. Resplendent in his dishdasha and with excellent Arabic, I was surprised to find out that he was a Pakistani Baluch. When I asked my interlocutors how many Pakistanis there were in Gulf military forces, the stock answer was always that, while this was common in the past, nowadays nearly all personnel were citizens.
Pakistanis have indeed played important roles in Arab states in the past: a former Pakistani president, Zia ul Haq, commanded a Jordanian formation during the fight against Palestinian groups in 1970 that came to be known as Black September; and thousands of Pakistani troops deployed to Saudi Arabia following both the Iranian revolution and the 1990-91 Gulf War.
Far from being a thing of the past, it would appear that Pakistani links to Gulf security forces remain strong. Reports last week indicated that Bahrain employs 10,000 Pakistanis in its security forces, including 20% of its air force. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif denied Pakistan was providing troops, but the article said Pakistan provided security personnel to help quell the 2011 sectarian protests. Not officially, mind you, because they had been recruited through two of Pakistan's military welfare organisations.
Gulf states rely to a large degree on expatriate labour, while poor countries such as Pakistan welcome the remittances that such work provides to the home economy. So on the face of it, the employment of Pakistanis in Arab security forces shouldn't be too much of an issue. The UK still employs several thousand Nepalese Ghurkhas in its army, after all.
But the situation is more complex in the Middle East and the consequences of employing large numbers of Sunni Pakistanis in Gulf states' security forces, where they may be called upon to quell protests based on sectarian discrimination, are obvious. In the Bahrain case, for example, Bahraini Shi'a complain that, while they are effectively barred from joining their own security forces based on their religion, the government employs Sunnis from countries such as Pakistan to repress them.
Saudi Arabia's attempts to develop even closer military relations with Pakistan also make strategic sense. Given Riyadh's nervousness about Iranian expansionism and Washington's willingness to undertake even a cautious rapprochement with Tehran, locking in a close relationship with a Sunni-majority country on Iran's border may be a wise investment for the future. The current controversy regarding the abduction of five Iranian border guards and their alleged presence in Pakistan shows just how vulnerable Tehran is to nefarious activity on its borders.
Never willing to miss an opportunity to stick the boot into Pakistan, even the venerable Times of India has bought into the issue of Pakistan's military relations with the Gulf states with its politically incorrect headline 'Sunni days for Saudi's hired gun Pakistan'.