If no major non-Arab nation has supported the Saudi bloc, so why pressure Pakistan, Saudi Arabia?
As is often the case in regional conflicts, outside players may feel compelled to toe the line of one of the parties. Thus, in the latest conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt (also known as the Saudi bloc), Pakistan finds itself walking a diplomatic and economic tightrope. That is, until the last few days, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told King Salman of Saudi Arabia that Pakistan will not be taking sides in the conflict.
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.
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 the 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.
While the Saudi bloc holds strong economic leverage with Pakistan on account of nearly $8 billion of remittances to Pakistan (versus about $0.3billion from Qatar), one must remember that the expatriate workers provide an important service to the host country, in a symbiotic relationship. They can’t just be kicked out on account of politics.
Also, while Pakistan’s trade flow with the Saudi bloc is an order higher than with Qatar, majority of the former’s imports to Pakistan are in the form of oil and petroleum products, which Pakistan can easily replace in a surplus petroleum market.
Most important to Pakistan today, however, is Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) as fuel to produce electric power. Qatar, already the largest supplier to Pakistan, is also the most efficient and reliable source of LNG, owing to its close proximity to Pakistan, as well as state of art production facilities and reserves. Resolving Pakistan’s power shortage can boost its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the range of 2-4%, dwarfing any economic loss in case of any negative Saudi bloc action.
While Saudi Arabia has long exerted soft power in Pakistan, one must remember that much of this was related to leveraging Pakistan’s internal political mess, including the many military coups over years. With the current political stability, it is time for Pakistan to shake off this influence.
Pakistan also maintains strong ties with Saudi’s arch rival, Iran, and should continue to do so. Qatar has more in common with Pakistan in this area than the Saudi bloc as Qatar too maintains better (than Saudi bloc) ties with Iran.
And this forms one of Saudi bloc’s key complains. 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 other states against a clear bad actor (Bashar al Assad), and not for sectarian reasons (i.e. Sunni states against Syria/Iran).
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 behind considerably. Moreover, 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 to not forget history. Lessons of the Afghan War and the United States’ fair-weather friendship are still sour in the minds and hearts of Pakistanis. Similarly, Qatar faces a betrayal of sorts from nations who until a week before the crisis were considered brothers. Not only does Qatar share the same religious ideology with Saudi Arabia, ties between their people are extensive as well. 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 opinionated editorials in American 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. In terms of supporting the Syrian opposition, both Saudi bloc and Qatar, while united against Assad, have chosen to support different entities at different times. Could some of this money end up in the wrong hands? Absolutely. In fact, any funds from any nation could end up in the wrong hands.
Another complain 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. Soft links to this movement exist globally, from Turkey to Tunisia, and even to Pakistan (as in Jamaat-e- Islami). So when the Saudi bloc claims that the Islamic State (IS) 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.
Furthermore, the Saudi bloc dislikes Qatar for allowing offices of the Taliban and Hamas. However, their long time presence has facilitated political dialogue. Even the US has engaged in discussions with the Taliban in Qatar. And Qatar has hosted Palestinian unity efforts. So is this a case of facilitating peace or fomenting terrorism?
Finally, hate towards Al Jazeera, the media channel, unites Saudi bloc against Qatar. Al Jazeera went from being a champion of free Egypt to the main villain following Egypt’s counter-revolution.
Here in Pakistan, we are blessed to have a relatively free press 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 largest sponsor of terrorism, it continues to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, reeking of double standards.
Clearly, there is an aggrieved party in this conflict and it is not the Saudi bloc. However, it would be very difficult to side with Qatar completely, and ignore the brotherly relations that Pakistan has with the Saudi bloc. Taking Turkey’s and Kuwait’s lead, Pakistan should continue to hold the neutral course and take on more of a negotiator/mediator role to bring the opposing parties back together.
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