ISLAMABAD - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif perhaps faced the biggest diplomatic challenge in his tenure so far as he grappled with his benefactor country Saudi Arabia’s overbearing wish list and a popular sentiment against becoming part of the conflict in Yemen.

To handle the crisis, Premier Sharif chose a familiar forum: the parliament. The same parliament that had provided him a relief just last year when his control over power was challenged by Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri.

Turning to the parliament was perhaps the most apt move as Prime Minister Sharif treaded the thin line of potentially offending the Saudis and yet providing them with enough expression of support so as to assuage any ill-will.

Through deft and cautious handling, Premier Sharif succeeded in bringing a unanimous resolution passed by a joint sitting of Parliament that looked suspiciously at the role of Saudi Arabia in the region in wake of Yemen crisis. And, yet the resolution tilted toward the Saudis but just enough.  

After five days long brainstorming sessions, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers warned PML-N’s government not to pay heed to Saudi wishes of embarking on a military adventure in Yemen for crushing Iran-backed rebels.

PM Sharif’s Defense Minister Khwaja Asif, who had led a high-powered delegation to Saudi Arabia, had informed the house on Monday that Saudis wanted Pakistan to assist them with sending ground troops, fighter jets and naval ships in wake of turmoil in Yemen.

While majority of lawmakers opposed the idea of Pakistan’s direct engagement in Yemen on the ground that it would unleash a sectarian war at home due to Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia leading air strikes on Iran-backed Shiite rebels, a handsome majority of lawmakers disapproved the Saudi’s desire that saw Premier Sharif to be an intimate friend of Arab royals.

With lawmakers not willing to grant an atom of support to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regarding fighting rebels in Yemen, PML-N MNAs feared Premier Sharif may fail to cater to Saudi expectations and even risk his friendship with the monarchs who had hosted the prime minister for nearly a decade after he was sent on exile to the kingdom.

Seasoned lawmakers like Senator Mushahid Hussain, Aitzaz Ahsan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, former foreign ministers and many others discouraged Premier Sharif for his possible decision of joining Saudi-led military coalition against ‘non-state actors’ in Yemen.

Premier Sharif during the joint session of house would listen keenly to the debate on the Yemen issue that reflected anti-Saudi sentiments. He would appreciate the comments of both opposition and his allied parties as speeches went by.

On Friday, before the session was convened, Premier Sharif met heads of parliamentary parties in the morning, to inform them about the exact request of Saudi authorities - details which could not be revealed on the floor of the house.

The resolution unanimously passed by the house was drafted in a way that neither rejected Saudis’ hopes pinned on Premier Sharif nor annoyed the neighbouring Iran that had sent its foreign minister Javad Zarif to meet top Pakistani officials, including PM Sharif in wake of Yemen issue.

While maintaining its neutrality in Yemen conflict against the request of Saudi royals, the resolution, however, read, “Pakistan will stand shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Arabia and its people in case of any threat to its territorial integrity or Harmain Sharifain”.

The resolution passed on Friday does not mention Iran in any context and despite the fact that Pakistan positioned itself to be neutral in the conflict, yet majority of the 12-point tilts in favour of Saudi Arabia. “Premier Sharif will not let down Saudi royals. He is true to his friends but at the same time he will give priority to national interests,” PML-N’s old activist and MNA Tehmina Daultana had told this reporter on Thursday when asked what would be the course of action of the prime minister given the competing sentiment in the country regarding the Yemen conflict.

PM Sharif is also credited for opening up to the demand of his rival PTI by establishing the judicial commission to probe the election his PML-N swept in 2013 and bringing the Imran Khan’s MNAs back to the parliament they had boycotted for the last seven months.