Pakistan’s role in the Mideast crisis

By Talat Masood

The decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies to boycott Qatar was in the making for some time, although it was not expected to be that harsh. There is a strong feeling that it was the Trump factor that emboldened Saudi Arabia to take the tough stand.

While on the one hand President Trump continues to support the policy of isolating Qatar and on the other, wants to play the role of a mediator. Perhaps, President Trump was initially unaware, until reminded by his staff that Qatar is home to CENTCOM, US biggest military base in the region with 8,000 troops stationed there. Not surprising that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took the opposite position that sanctions against Qatar be eased as it is causing unintended humanitarian consequences and hindering military action in the region and affecting the fight against the Islamic State. German Chancellor Merkel has echoed similar support for lifting sanctions on Qatar.

Secretary Tillerson has sought the cooperation of Turkey in defusing the crisis. It is, however, not clear whether the different positions taken by the president and the secretary of state are by design or reflect the state of confusion in US policy.

In a region where free speech is considered criminal activity Al Jazeera has become highly contentious. Its more vocal and independent reporting of events is unacceptable to insecure and authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. Qatar’s political and moral support and providing asylum to Muslim Brotherhood leaders is another bone of contention. What is troubling the Arab regimes is also Qatar’s relation with Iran and support of Hamas.

By adopting an independent and balanced policy Qatar aims at increasing its leverage. Moreover, its policies are dictated by economic considerations. A demonstration of this is sharing a gas field with Iran. But Saudi Arabia and its allies find Qatar’s independent stance quite unacceptable.

This is not to overlook the ambitious designs of Iran in the Middle East conundrum. Its support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, despite its flagrant violation of human rights, unwavering support of Hezbollah and military and political dominance of Iraq give rise to a clash of interests and invite a response from Arab countries.

The latest decision by Turkey to support Qatar gives a new twist to how regional countries are positioning themselves to protect and advance their interests. Ankara may be seeing it as an opportunity to establish its foothold in an Arab country to enhance its influence in the Middle East. Sending its troops is a clear signal that Turkey will defend the territorial integrity of Qatar. By supporting Qatar, Turkey also aims to moderate the influence of Iran and act as check against the growing footprint of Israel in the region.

What makes Qatar vulnerable is its heavy dependence on imports. Eighty per cent of food necessities come from Saudi Arabia. And the main land route connects Qatar with Saudi Arabia. That should normally restrict taking independent positions. But with Iran flying over 450 tons of food necessities and Turkey equally keen to win over Qatar the blockade is unlikely to make an impact. This measure would also hurt Saudi businessmen, as they would lose the attractive Qatar market. Despite external support Qatar would eventually have to extend some concessions and Saudi Arabia and its allies will have to soften their position. Prudence demands national decisions should be compatible with national power. Apparently, Hamas leadership is relocating itself either in Sudan or Iran.

It is truly an irony that the rivalry of the Sunni regimes against Iran is so intense that there are no qualms in accepting Israel as an ally. Indeed, Tel Aviv is one of the main beneficiaries of this confrontation.

All these ominous developments reinforce the deep and expanding crisis in the Muslim world. It makes a mockery of the stated objective of the Islamic military alliance to forge a united front to fight terrorism and extremism. Differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not between its people as much as these are between the ruling families. In fact, the people of both the countries have so much in common and are like one society with different rulers.

The Arab divide places Pakistan in a delicate and challenging situation. Saudi Arabia is Pakistan’s staunch strategic ally. It has stood steadfast with Pakistan in crises and extended financial and diplomatic support. Nearly 1.8 million Pakistani expatriates are working in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is home to Makkah and Madina, the holiest places for Muslims. Nawaz Sharif personally owes a lot to the Saudi monarchy and enjoys a strong personal relationship.

With Qatar Pakistan enjoys close fraternal relations. It is the primary source of supply of gas. About 80,000 Pakistani expatriates are in Qatar. The prospect of nearly an additional 100,000 Pakistanis being hired before the World Olympics is an added attraction.

There have been voices raised for calling back General Raheel Sharif. I do not foresee any immediate role for him in the Saudi-Qatar confrontation. The Saudi alliance is not planning any military action against Qatar; the thrust is in persuading it to change policies and if possible force the present ruler to quit through diplomatic isolation and economic coercion. In any case it would take a year or two before the military force that is planned by Prince Mohammed would be operational.

Historically, Pakistan has never taken sides in intra-Arab feuds. In the Yemen conflict too Pakistan took a neutral position. It realises confrontation among Arab countries has consequences for Muslims worldwide. It will undermine the fight against Islamic State and further weaken the voice of Arab countries at international forums. However, the recent visit of a Qatari delegation to Lahore and its meeting with Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week suggest Pakistan’s efforts at defusing the crisis. If Pakistan, along with Turkey, can contribute in bringing peace to the region it would be a great achievement.

(The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board)