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A sticky Gulf wicket!
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The news of United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt breaking off all diplomatic ties with Qatar, a close ally to Islamabad, by land, sea and air made headline news around the world. The Gulf States have given a time of two weeks to the Qataris to leave their shores. Qatar has also been taken out of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) fighting in Yemen presently. Abu Dhabi has announced stopping its flights to and from Doha.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office in light of the new development between Qatar and Gulf States was quick to issue a statement that she has no plans to cut ties with Qatar. However as a friend, Sikander Pasha mailed, echoing my concern: “It will not be long before we get this phone call from Saudi Arabia, ‘Are you with us or against us?’ Are we ready to take that call?” Assuming that relations will remain the same between others in international relations is a fallacy. There are no friends in international relations. Only allies. The allies change with time.
The timing is interesting, coming within a fortnight of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Trump seems to be taking credit for the cut-off according to CNN. (June 7, 2017) He tweeted, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”  (5:06 PM – 6 Jun 2017) Though Pentagon officials have given statements to mitigate the impact of the damage the tweet can cause to USA, largely in terms of justifying its continued presence in Qatar having a mammoth air base there- this situation is a sticky wicket. Not just for US but many others. Iran too has blamed the USA of promoting the Gulf crisis.
Qatar’s neighbours have criticised her for support of Muslim Brotherhood- a Sunni Islamist group, though political, that challenges the hereditary rule of Saudi Arabia. With overthrowing of Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar continued supporting it, whereas Saudi Arabia supported Abdel Fattah el Sisi. In Syria too both countries have often supported opposing groups that has only led to empowering the groups creating a threat to regional stability. Foreign policies of Qatar have often been at odds with that of Saudi Arabia.
In this conflicting relationship, in late May Qatar had complained that a series of malicious propaganda articles against Qatar were published in US. Qatar had also alleged that the Qatar government website was hacked “in a bid to undermine its standing in the Gulf and in Washington.” These alleged statements against Gulf States, praising Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly by the Qatari Emir were later removed shortly after it appeared on the QNA website. A statement by the Qatari Foreign Minister said it was false news planted by the hackers.
Former Iranian ambassador to the UAE and France, Hamid-Reza Asefi, in an interview to Iran Daily, opines, “The ongoing conflict between Doha and Riyadh has happened twice in recent years. Nonetheless, this time the situation is more complicated and more difficult. The ongoing conflict is completely different and deeper than the previous ones.” (06 Jun 2017)
Asefi is right in his evaluation. In a swift unfolding of events that has stunned the world- Turkey’s Parliament approved a draft bill to deploy her troops at a Turkish military base in Qatar to face any onslaught by Saudi Arabia and her allies. Not only on the military basis but also on trade basis Turkey has committed to stand by Qatar in possible shortage of food and water-as has Iran.
An interesting question arises regarding IMAFT. Formed technically to fight terrorism- how does it stand in relation to present boycott against Qatar?
“Saudi Arabia said it made the decision to cut diplomatic ties due to Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, the Islamic State group and groups supported by Iran in the kingdom’s restive Eastern Province. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry accused Qatar of taking an “antagonist approach” toward Egypt and said “all attempts to stop it from supporting terrorist groups failed.”  (New York Post June 5, 2017)
In an extreme situation will the IMAFT be used against Qatar? How does this place Pakistan vis a vis Qatar?
Some have mailed me suggesting Pakistan must immediately exit from IMAFT. This again, will be a knee jerk reaction sending wrong signals to Saudi Arabia who had played host to the Sharif family for many years upon their exodus from Pakistan after takeover by Musharraf.  Whereas Pakistan has a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, it has stood on good footing with Qatar-  the House of Qatar has stood by the House of Sharif in their most difficult times reference Panama Leaks case. The Sharifs’ have presented letters by the Qatari princes as evidence of the money trail. Can they be annoyed at this point by Pakistan’s anti-Qatar stance? Besides, Pakistan had announced training of some 200,000 Pakistanis to work in Qatar in building of infrastructure or the 2022 World Cup.
“There are no friends in international relations. Only allies. The allies change with time.”
Pakistan must devise a well-crafted strategy and in doing so protect her interests with both countries.
The choice to not take sides if the crisis further escalates may be wrested away from Pakistan if situation spirals out of control. There can be different possible scenarios that may face Pakistan. One is Saudi Arab asking Pakistan to openly declare allegiance with her. Pakistan cannot also overlook the large number of its citizens employed there .As per a 2014 European University Institute report, the numbers of Pakistanis at low level jobs and as construction workers alone was 900,000. (02, 15, 2017)
Can Pakistan play mediator between the two?  There are many successful stories of back channel diplomacy including the positive role played by Pope Francis in 2014 to bring back to normalcy the relationship between Cuba and US. “The pope’s secret role in the back-channel talks was crucial because, as a religious leader with the confidence of both sides, he was able to convince the Obama and Castro administrations that the other side would live up to the deal.” (The Los Angeles Times December 18, 2014)
Many feel and have communicated to me that Pakistan in no position as an aid-receiver to talk from a position of strength. However, this is Pakistan’s best chance: playing a positive role to reduce tensions at the same time protecting her own interests. She may fail, but it will not be for lack of trying. Then, if asked to take sides, she will be in a position to take a principled stance to stay neutral and to deal with this delicate situation. The news of Nawaz Sharif’s decision to fly to Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arab to help resolve the Gulf crisis is a welcome step indeed.
Sitting on the fence-waiting for the situation to melt away, without any strategy is a recipe for disaster. Pakistan may end up toeing the line selling herself chap in the bargain.
Yasmeen Aftab Ali