Following the holding of Arab-Islamic-US summit held in Riyadh in May and the Saudi led action taken against Qatar in June, Pakistan having cordial relations with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar is facing a paradoxical situation.
How should Pakistan cope with recent crisis in the Gulf and what should be its strategy to deal with the growing schism between the Saudi led GCC members and Qatar and the Turkish-Iranian position taken against Riyadh? What leadership role Pakistan can play in preventing an impeding armed conflict in the Gulf and how it can withstand growing Saudi pressure over Islamabad to take a position against Qatar?
Saudi led action against Qatar on June 5 tends to divide the Arab-Muslim world because Doha has rejected the allegations of Saudi Arabia and the United States of Qatar sponsoring terrorist groups in the Arab world. Paradoxically, if Qatar is involved in fomenting terrorism then why are there 10,000 US forces in that country and why were the charges against Qatar not presented during the Riyadh summit?
Supporting Hamas against its struggle to emancipate the Palestinian territories from the clutches of Israel is legitimate and cannot be equated with terrorism. Likewise, Qatar’s support to the then regime of Mohammad Morsi of Egypt made sense because it was a legitimate and democratically-elected government which was overthrown in a military coup. In fact, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan made it clear that charges against Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East were baseless and action against the Gulf state must be withdrawn immediately.
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Qatar has remained an important member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but it refused to take sides against Iran. In fact, the Saudi led action against Qatar emanates from insecurity prevailing in some Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain about Doha’s successes in transforming Qatar as an economic and technological hub of the Middle East.
As far as TV channel Al-Jazeera located in Doha is concerned, since long its independent and professional news coverage and analysis caused reservations and insecurity among the conservative and dictatorial Arab regimes. Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani said in Moscow the other day that his country will not come under any pressure from Saudi Arabia or UAE to close Al-Jazeera and will not compromise on its foreign policy interests.
On these grounds, actions taken against Qatar under the initiative of Saudi Arabia and the United States are devoid of any legitimate reason and tend to generate a major crisis in the Middle East. Furthermore, two key members of GCC: Kuwait and Oman, are not a party to the Saudi led action against Qatar, which further reflects deep split in the Gulf.
Because of four main reasons Pakistan is facing a catch 22 situation as far as dealing with Qatar crisis is concerned. First, since Pakistan has cordial relations with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia and is also dependent on both the Gulf countries for economic reasons, it cannot afford to be partisan and take sides in the prevailing conflict.
If Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain exert pressure over Pakistan to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and ban Qatar Airways operating its flights from that country, Pakistan must refuse such coercion because acquiescing to Riyadh led alliance against Qatar would compromise its national interest and sovereignty.
Second, following the Islamic-Arab-US summit held in Riyadh and the subsequent action against Qatar, the issue of Pakistan remaining in the so-called Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) needs to be given second thoughts. Saudi-US nexus against Iran is a serious matter as both countries are focusing on further isolating Tehran on unsubstantiated charges of sponsoring terrorism.
The recent terrorist attacks in Tehran and Qum and the allegations of Iranian leaders that Saudi Arabia was responsible for conducting such attacks has made the position of Pakistan quite delicate. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries were angry with Qatar on why it was not supporting their anti-Iranian alliance and was pursuing an independent foreign policy.
If the motive of IMA is to isolate Iran and take action against Qatar, in that case, Pakistan must adopt a bold stand by withdrawing from that alliance, which is becoming a source of embarrassment and rift in the Arab-Muslim World.
Third, without further wasting any more time, Pakistan must play a leadership role in the Muslim world by presenting a meaningful plan for managing existing conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Qatar because crisis between the two is detrimental to the interests of the Arab-Muslim world.
In that case, Pakistan can coordinate with Oman and Kuwait, the two neutral GCC members on Qatar crisis and compel Saudi Arabia and Qatar to resolve their contentious issues through negotiations. Qatar, unlike Iraq, which in August 1990 had occupied Kuwait, is not involved in any aggression and cannot be punished by imposing sanctions on dubious charges of sponsoring terrorism and terrorist groups in the Middle East.
If Saudi Arabia and its allies want to take a position against aggression, occupation, and terrorism, they must take measures against Israel which since its inception is involved in targeting innocent Palestinians and is also an occupier of Arab lands including the holy city of Jerusalem.
Finally, the perception that Pakistan is a hub of sectarian proxy war of Saudi Arabia and Iran needs to be dispelled by denying any space to all those forces that have foreign linkages and are using religious discords to pursue their own agendas.
Pakistan also needs to dispel the notion that it can be taken for granted by Saudi Arabia because of economic dependence. It needs to be cleared by those who wield power in Pakistan that their country is not a mercenary state and cannot be used in Saudi-Iranian conflict.
Unfortunately, the fault lines in Pakistan’s crisis of decision-making are responsible for creating doubts, ambiguity and concerns on how to respond to a situation which appears to be quite critical.
While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with the Chief of Army Staff paid a visit to Saudi Arabia and had a meeting with the Saudi monarch to find a solution of Qatar crisis, Nawaz Sharif on account of his personal relations with the royal family should have also visited Qatar and discussed with Qatri leadership on how to resolve the prevailing conflict between Qatar on the one hand and the Saudi-backed GCC countries on the other because a unilateral diplomatic initiative cannot succeed and is always counterproductive.
The Qatar crisis is a test case for Pakistan’s foreign policy because the aggravation of crisis will negatively impact on the country’s vital interests. When it is becoming obvious that the very purpose of Riyadh summit and the so-called IMA was to isolate Iran and now Qatar, Pakistan must seek an immediate withdrawal from that alliance before it is too late and the sectarian divide in the Gulf destabilises the state and society of Pakistan.