The Qatar Crisis

Spearhead Opinion – 17.07.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Pakistan is faced with yet another diplomatic quandary—this time concerning Qatar. The standoff between Qatar and its neighbors began as a means to put pressure on the Qatari government to end its support for Hamas and other Islamist groups. As demands were made and the crisis picked up, so began the much-hyped ‘falling out’ where Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Maldives formally cut ties with Qatar. Predictably so, Pakistan will soon be pushed into making the same dreaded choice.

For foreign policymakers in Pakistan deliberating will evoke some sense of déjà vu considering it was only last month that Pakistan had to make an oddly similar choice between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh summit sparked rumors of Pakistan’s former Army Chief and head of the Saudi-led coalition, Raheel Sharif withdrawing from the military coalition. Due to severe criticism at home because of the anti-Iran rhetoric propagated by the leaders of the United States and Saudi Arabia at the summit, Islamabad even went as far as to claim that Pakistan’s participation in the alliance wasn’t final yet.

It is highly unlikely for Islamabad to have been completely oblivious of the fact that the Saudi-led coalition is broadly tailored to act as a Salafi NATO against the Iran-led Shia Crescent.

Fast-forward to the Qatar crisis, Pakistan forgoing good relations with yet another state under Saudi pressure would only confirm previous accusations that the military coalition is little more than a ‘security force’ working for al-Saud.

After Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999, he spent seven years in exile in Jeddah. Hence, for PM Nawaz Pak-Saudi relations are somewhat personal. To an extent it is likely that the sitting Prime Minister feels personally indebted to Saudi Arabia. The military establishment too receives significant funding from Saudi Arabia. So, it is difficult to imagine Islamabad as doing anything other than looking to remain neutral in the conflict, ideally for as long as it takes.

Last year, Pakistan signed a 15-year agreement to import up to 3.75 million tonnes of LNG annually from Qatar. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Adding 2,000 megawatts of power to the national grid could be a major step in improving Pakistan’s energy deficit. The deal signed between Pakistan State Oil Company and Qatari’s Qatargas-2, which is also the world’s biggest LNG producer, can amount for over 85% of Pakistan’s LNG import capacity. Moreover, Qatar has expressed interest in the $1.5 billion Karachi-Lahore LNG pipeline project to supply gas to Punjab.

Finding a replacement for other Asian industrial consumers in the region will also be a major predicament following the crisis. About two-thirds of Qatar’s exports are sent to Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, China, and Thailand. In addition, one-third of the LNG traded internationally is also supplied by Qatar.

What could make a bad situation worse for Pakistan is if China is pushed into making the same choice between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The risk of China and Saudi Arabia possibly ending up on opposite sides in the conflict could spell great trouble for Pakistan’s foreign policy strategists.

As of now, Washington’s stance is also under much scrutiny. It is expected for the US to ally with Saudi Arabia. At least that is what analysts make of President Trump’s remarks on Twitter since the blockade, where he has shown no willingness to push for a compromise. Trump seems to be unaware of the existing US military presence in Qatar, which is a major US partner in the region. Qatar also hosts the United States Air Force’s Combined Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base, which runs command and control for US military operations through 20 countries.

Contrary to the President’s stance, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken a reconciliatory approach. It is apparent at this point that the President does as he pleases despite what other representatives of his administration say or do. To say the least, consistency is not the Trump administration’s strong point. Five days after the blockade Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to ease their imposed restrictions. He went through a slew of meetings with Qatar and Saudi Arabia attempting to mediate in the ongoing dispute.

So far however a solution remains far off.

More recently, backtracking on his previous position Trump told an American news channel that the US will continue to have good relations with Qatar, further adding that the US airbase will not be moved out of the Middle Eastern country.

This episode has once again highlighted the ‘disconnect’ within the Trump administration, wherein it is obvious that President Trump may drop important US partners and allies on impulse. So, foreign policy management has proven to be challenging—both to navigate for the administration and keep up with as an observer. Lack of coherence in policy and ambiguity over the centers of power and how they function is currently notable. The consequences of this will not go unnoticed in the region where questions on US resolve and commitment are growing louder. Despite some grounds gained, the new administration’s policy in the Middle East and even Asia is looking to be highly unstable. As the number of crises facing the administration increase, with Qatar now adding to the mix, the administration will only feel more inclined to tend to individual challenges rather than adopt a holistic approach.

It is extremely important for the US President and his administration to be on the same page when it comes to managing the current crisis. Defining the ends and means the administration seeks in the region, as well as globally, can help outline priorities. If the Trump administration begins working on building a broader policy for the region, it would ease the popularly felt anxiety over sustainability and the longevity of the American presence.

It seems unlikely for the Qatari crisis to lead to open conflict. The Saudi-UAE coalition is confident that with the embargo in place and increased diplomatic pressure Qatar will eventually have to cave. The countries so far have listed 13 demands that include cutting ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. While Qatar agreeing to all demands is highly doubtful the fact that these have been outlined does provide some room for a possible negotiation between countries.