Pakistan may find it increasingly difficult to maintain its posture of neutrality in this new round of the Middle East crisis. In the ongoing diplomatic spat, Pakistan walks on a tightrope.
On one side is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – both home to millions of Pakistanis, who contribute more than $10 billion worth remittances every year to the country’s economy – and on the other is Qatar, which also has strong ties with Pakistan.
Just last year, Pakistan signed a 15-year deal to import liquefied natural gas from Qatar. Add to that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s personal relationship with the royals of the two countries, and you will understand his dilemma.
It was Saudi Arabia that rescued Sharif after General Pervez Musharraf toppled his government in 1999 and put him in jail. The Kingdom not only helped arrange a deal with the then military government, but also hosted Sharif and his family for eight long years.
And when Sharif is again in a tight corner, thanks to the Panama scandal, it is the Qatari royal and former prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, who has jumped in with a testimony in an attempt to get him cleared of charges of wrongdoing. So while the talks of staying neutral in the crisis seem to be the best way forward, it is easier said than done.
On June 12, PM Sharif went to Saudi Arabia along with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in an apparent bid to ease tensions between the Arab neighbours, but it looked more like an effort to clarify Pakistan’s stance and maintain at least semblance of neutrality.
If reports are to be believed, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz bluntly asked Sharif if he was “with or against” them in kingdom’s standoff with Qatar. The answer to this question is obviously not simple.
However, this is not the first time in recent years that Pakistan finds itself in an awkward situation viz-a-viz its Arab allies.
In 2015, Pakistan’s refusal to be part of the Saudi-led operation in Yemen not only angered the Saudis, but also did not go well with the UAE. While the Saudis did not express it publically, the UAE came down hard on Pakistan.
Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, warned Pakistan that it would pay a “heavy price” for its refusal to support the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council.
Not long after that, in Aug 2015, by default or design, the UAE and India signed billions of dollars’ worth deals during a “very successful” visit to Emirates by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A few months later, in April 2016, Saudi Arabia also accorded a warm welcome to Modi and conferred him the highest civilian honour – the King Abdulaziz Sash.
However, Pakistan’s military and civil leadership, especially the then army chief, General Raheel Sharif, worked hard to bring relations with Saudi Arabia back on track.
The new challenge
General Sharif’s presence in Riyadh as the commander of the Saudi-led military coalition ideally should give Pakistan some leverage in its attempts to ease tensions within the Arab countries. But Pakistan’s civilian leaders continue to give confusing signals about his appointment in Saudi Arabia.
On June 21, Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz triggered a new controversy when he said that calling Gen Sharif back to Pakistan was not possible because he took up the command of the Saudi-led coalition in a personal capacity. By issuing this statement, the government has tried to distance itself from the coalition.
If push comes to shove, Pakistan will be forced to take sides
This shows that the government wants to appease all the players in the Middle East, but this posturing is bound to deepen Riyadh’s and its allies’ distrust toward Islamabad.
The changing dimensions of Saudi politics itself – with Prince Mohammed bin Salman now the designated Crown Prince – is likely to result in a more aggressive approach from Riyadh, testing Islamabad’s resolve of neutrality.
The new crown prince, known as the architect of the war in Yemen, is a hardliner when it comes to dealing with Iran. Pakistan’s neutral stance may not be enough for the young, ambitious and powerful Crown Prince. And with Turkey already siding with Qatar, pressure on Pakistan to come out strongly in favour of the Saudis and its allies is likely to mount.
Although for now the strategy of maintaining diplomatic ambiguity seems to be working for Pakistan, this may have to change soon. If push comes to shove, Pakistan will be forced to take sides. It might not mean cutting diplomatic ties with Doha or Tehran, but Islamabad would be forced to issue at least some clear-cut statements.
Key decision-makers and many Pakistanis will find a pro-Saudi stance logical. Remittances from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are more than half of the roughly $20 billion sent home by overseas Pakistanis. Millions of Pakistanis, mostly labour class, work in these two countries and any move to send them back will jolt Pakistan.
The Saudi money flowing into the Pakistani economy, be it in terms of free oil, aid or soft loans, also makes it next to impossible for the government to be on the wrong side of the Kingdom. And while one hopes that tensions in the Middle East ease and Islamabad is able to maintain its neutrality, it should be clear whose side Pakistan would take, if it runs out of options.