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Wednesday, June 7, 2017
The Qatar Crisis: A Diplomatic Curveball for Pakistan
It is hard to imagine Islamabad not being cognizant that the Saudi coalition is, for all intents and purposes, is a Salafi NATO designed to counter the “Shia Crescent” spearheaded by Iran.” But after finally acquiescing to compromising ties with Tehran, in exchange for the Saudi petrodollars, Islamabad now faces another stiff question, at the most inopportune of moments.
The existence of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) means that Pakistan, like the rest of the world, has treated all member countries as an extension of Saudi Arabia. Unlike relations with Iran, which have always had the sword of Saudi-exacted opportunity cost hanging over them, any agreements with other GCC states have been negotiated and signed without any such considerations.
But now with a potentially prolonged Saudi-Qatar rift, Pakistan might have to face a dreaded choice sooner rather than later. The answer would have severe ramifications for Islamabad, especially vis-à-vis the multipronged security and energy crises that the country finds itself in.
Pakistan, which is already surrounded by a hostile neighborhood accusing it of harboring terrorism and in turn threatening attacks inside its territory, can ill-afford the rupture of ties with another state in the Middle East. The conundrum would multiply for Pakistan if, in addition to Iran, Qatar draws closer to Turkey as it looks for outlets to bridge the economic gap that severing ties with the Gulf neighbors would cause. Ankara has supported Islamabad on multiple fronts in recent times.
For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been instrumental in establishing Pakistan’s ties with Turkey, the timing of the Qatar crisis could not have been worse. With the Qatari royal family vying to bail the Sharif family out in the ongoing investigation over the Panama Papers corruption scandal, Sharif cannot distance himself from Doha, especially with the 2018 general elections less a year away.
On the other hand, more than Iran, Turkey, Qatar, or any other state, Nawaz Sharif is personally indebted to Saudi Arabia for saving his life during the Musharraf regime, as the then-deposed prime minister found a safe space for exile in the Kingdom.
With the interests of the civilian government and the military establishment, which enjoys a significant share of Saudi funding, aligning with Riyadh, it’s hard to imagine Islamabad doing anything that would be interpreted as support for Doha. Pakistan would hence look to stretch out its neutrality over the conflict for as long as possible, and avoid doing anything that could be interpreted by the al-Saud family as support for Qatar.
What could further complicate matters for Islamabad is if China, after maintaining neutrality in most regional feuds, is pushed into picking sides in the conflict, especially if Washington allies with Riyadh as expected. For Islamabad, finding China and Saudi in opposing alliances would be an unprecedented nightmare that would officially sound the death knell for its foreign policy rulebook.
There’s a lot more than power supply and state security at stake for Pakistan.