As is often the case during regional conflicts, outside players with strong ties to the region, may feel compelled to toe the line to one of the parties. Thus, in the latest conflict between Qatar and Saudi/UAE/Egypt ( “Saudi bloc”), Pakistan found itself walking a diplomatic and economic tightrope. That is, until the last few days, when PM Nawaz Sharif told King Salman of Saudi Arabia that Pakistan will not be taking sides in the conflict.
As an important side-note, the country’s interest must not be held ransom to Nawaz Sharif’s own personal debt to Saudi Arabia, who hosted him for eight years during his exile during the Musharraf era. And it appears so far Mr. Sharif is resisting the pressure.
As this commentary will illustrate, I believe that this is the commendable choice, as it is in Pakistan’s interest to remain neutral, if not lean, towards Qatar based on some key factors that I detail below.
Will Pakistan pay a price for this neutrality? The first response is why should Pakistan, as a sovereign nation, suffer any consequences for its foreign policy choices? In fact, outside Arab countries, no major nation has supported the Saudi bloc so why pressure Pakistan. However, in the current toxic environment, the Saudi bloc may, unfortunately, try to blackmail Pakistan using some of its economic leverage but as I argue, Pakistan is well placed to stand up to any pressure as discussed next:
The authors argue that it is in Pakistan’s interest to remain at least neutral, if not lean to Qatar. We base our argument on three macro factors: economics, geopolitical, and principles.
There is no doubt that Saudi bloc holds strong leverage in terms of pure economics with nearly $8bn of remittances to Pakistan through a pipeline of 3+ mn million expatriate Pakistani workers versus only about $0.3bn via just over 100,000 workers in Qatar.
Furthermore, trade flow between the two parties is lopsided with Saudi block being an order higher than Qatar in terms of both exports and imports.
However, there are some key points to be made here:
Firstly, while overseas workers send remittances back home, they are also providing an important service to the host country- a sort of symbiotic relationship. It is not like host nations can wake up one day and ship workers home because replacement can be both expensive and time-consuming. For example, India also has a huge contingent of workers in these countries—does this mean that India must also side with one party to maintain its workforce there?
Secondly, the majority of trade flow is imported to Pakistan from these countries is in the form of oil and gas sales. While there may be some “special discounts” for some portion of these sales, Pakistan is likely paying close to market prices and can easily replace these sales from other entities in a global market that provide plenty of outlets for replacement energy products.
While old economic factors are important, the new kid on the block is liquefied natural gas (LNG). Qatar is now a large supplier of LNG. As the Pakistan population is painfully aware, the largest bane to Pakistani economy has been electric power. And power requires fuel. There is no more efficient and cleaner fuel than natural gas, which has been depleting from Sui fields in Baluchistan. LNG provides the fastest and most efficient fix to boost natural gas supplies. Fixing the power situation can boost Estimates for effect on GDP due to power shortfalls range from 2-4%, losses that dwarf any trade/loans from Saudi bloc.
Qatar is the largest supplier of LNG in the world. In terms of proximity, it is the closest major supplier, thus with the lowest shipping costs. Thus, in terms of delivered sales, there is no more efficient and reliable supplier than Qatar.
We do acknowledge that Qatar has been resistant to Pakistani expatriates with much difficulty in obtaining worker permits for Pakistani citizens as compared to other nations (such as India, Nepal, Philippines, etc.). However, by enhancing LNG imports, Pakistan will also hold leverage with Qatar and can petition this tiny state to allow equal access to Pakistani workers relative to other nations.
As a Muslim nation, Pakistan is in a more difficult position relative to say India in terms of the unique pressure that this situation exerts. Saudi has long exerted soft power in Pakistan. Much of this power was related to leveraging Pakistan’s internal political mess, including the many military coups of the year. However, with current political stability, it is time for Pakistan to shake off this influence.
Recently, Pakistan’s former army chief was appointed to lead a 39-member military alliance put together by Saudi Arabia as sort of a “Muslim NATO”. This in itself has been fraught with risks. Pakistan has a large Shia population, and it became increasingly clear that this force was designed as an anti-Iran coalition. With a lack of clear objectives, this effort may soon see its death knell.
Also, Pakistan has borders both with Afghanistan and Iran, in addition to India. It is in Pakistan’s interest to maintain and foster good relations with these Muslim countries besides the Arab bloc. But it is in both Qatar and Pakistan’s interest to take sides only when its own interests are aligned with the other parties. For example, in Syria, both must join majority other states against a clear bad actor (Assad), and not for sectarian reasons (i.e. Sunni states against Syria/Iran).
Furthermore, in the recent summit held in Riyadh where Donald Trump, a President who has a known record of hateful statements against Muslims, was ironically invited to join Muslim leaders in a coalition to stamp out terrorism. While one would imagine that Pakistan would be in the forefronts of such coalitions, having suffered tremendous costs in its campaign to obliterate radicals, instead Pakistan was hardly present and relegated to the back-benches. The Prime-minister was not even offered time for his speech. Instead, it became an Arab-USA back-patting affair, showing once more that Pakistan is not even respected, even while its military is most sought by all the Arab nations. It became a case of surrendering to the Arab master and the Arab to the White master.
Also, Pakistan should take cues from another Muslim nation with strong military power, Turkey. Nuclear Pakistan should be toe to toe with Turkey in terms of exerting global power, yet Pakistan lags considerably behind. Also, in the recent anti-terrorism Riyadh Summit, the Saudi bloc gave no respect to both Pakistan and Turkey. While Pakistan should have been at the forefronts of such events, it was relegated to the back-benches. Thus, like Turkey, it is time for Pakistan to exert its own independence (including its approach to Qatar).
It is important for Pakistan not to forget history—of being let down by friends after being “used”. The lessons of the Afghan war and the United States’ fair-weather friendship is still sour in the minds and hearts of Pakistan.
Qatar too faces a betrayal of sorts from nations that until a week before the crisis were considered “brotherly” nations. Not only does Qatar share a religious ideology with Saudi Arabia in particular, ties between the nations and people are deep and extensive. Many Qataris have tribal and ancestral roots in Saudi Arabia, and have direct family members, land-holdings and other interests in Saudi. Yet within a week, Qatar became the face of the enemy!
Furthermore, the Saudi bloc is accusing Qatar of funding terrorism, charges that sound very familiar in Pakistan. Even while Pakistan has been one of the biggest victims of terrorism, perceptions to the contrary have flourished, due to clever propaganda. Similarly, Qatar faced a barrage of negative op-eds in USA papers over the last few months, to soil its reputation.
Like Pakistan, terrorism charges against Qatar are also quite obscure, and in Qatar’s case mostly dealing with Syria and Egypt. Qatar has recently hired a USA firm headed by the US Attorney General during Sept. 11 attacks, John Ashcroft in order to review measures in place to prevent and detect efforts to launder funds and/or to use its financial systems to finance terrorist organizations. In terms of support of Syrian opposition, all parties in this conflict are united against Assad. Different parties have chosen to support different entities at different times based on who they feel is particularly effective. Could some of this money end up in the wrong hands? Absolutely. In fact, any funds from any nation, including the Saudi bloc, the United States, or any of the multitude of players could end up in the wrong hands.
Another complaint against Qatar is with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). One must note that the MB was Egypt’s democratically elected ruling party only a few years ago. The organization has long distances itself from violence. Soft links to this movement exist globally, from Turkey, to Tunisia, and even to Pakistan (as in Jamaat-e- Islami). It is fair to accept that offshoots of MB may have veered away from MB’s core principles or even adopted violence. And that some countries may see these offshoots as existential threats. But to paint the entire movement as one monolith or the “mother of terrorism” is not only simplistic but flat wrong. So when the Saudi bloc claims that ISIS gets its motivation from MB and paints the entire MB movement as one monolith or the “mother of terrorism”, it is not only simplistic but wrong. Let’s take this logic to its natural conclusion: if ISIS takes its motivation from MB, and MB takes its motivation from Islam, is Islam the “mother of terrorism”?
Also, the Saudi bloc dislikes Qatar for allowing offices of Taliban and Hamas. The presence of official representatives in Qatar permits counterparties to meet at a neutral location, which is to facilitate peaceful and political resolutions. You cannot shut down voices, you can just force them to move somewhere else, which may make it even harder to come to reasonable terms with them. Even the USA has engaged in discussions with Taliban in Qatar. And Qatar has hosted Palestinian unity efforts. So, is this a case of facilitating peace or fomenting terrorism?
Hate of Al-Jazeera media channel units Saudi bloc against Qatar. While Al-Jazeera became a champion of Egyptian people during the revolution to overthrow Hosni Mubarak. However, Sisi rode a brutal campaign which saw the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians, what many see as a counter-revolution. The Egyptian media stood arm in arm with Sisi in this transition and became a central theme in the propaganda to dehumanize Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party, which paved the way for a military strongman to enter the presidency. Al-Jazeera, especially the Arabic channel, was considered biased towards the Brotherhood and would no toe the official media line of the new Egypt, and thus became the target of a hostile campaign of defamation and even saw its journalists imprisoned. It is important to note that UAE particularly provided generous and overt support to the coup and Saudi under King Abdulla was not far behind. This chasm was one of the early significant fractures between Saudi bloc and Qatar.
Here in Pakistan, we are blessed to have a relatively free press. No politician or strongman is safe from the eye of the media. And can appreciate Al-Jazeera’s much more independent coverage than any other Arab media outlet. Regardless of Al-Jazeera’s coverage, no nation should be able to exert pressure on another to shut off a media channel. Silencing media voices hurts everyone.
Finally, while the Saudi bloc sees Iran as the biggest threat to world peace and the largest sponsor of terrorism, it continues to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with Iran. So on one hand, Qatar is being punished for not toeing the Saudi bloc line to Iran, but the on the other, the Saudi bloc continues to do business as usual with Iran. This makes little sense and reeks of double standards. Furthermore, the way to contain Iran would not be into strong-arming it into compliance. Iran must stop its disastrous direct interference in assisting Syrian’s Assad in his brutal campaign. But it cannot be stopped with empty threats and punishing a small nation for keeping its options open.
In conclusion, the authors believe that there is a clearly an aggrieved party in this conflict and it is not the Saudi bloc. However, it would very difficult to ignore the brotherly and significant relations that Pakistan has with the Saudi bloc. Thus, while support to Qatar appears to be the most principled approach, it should be done carefully and without damaging relations with the Saudi bloc. Taking Turkey’s lead and even to some extent Kuwait, Pakistan can take on more of a negotiator/mediator role to bring the parties back from the brink of total collapse.
A version of this article was also published here.