On June 12, 2017, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Jeddah to meet with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. He was accompanied by his army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and other senior Pakistani officials. This visit came on the heels of two major events in the region: the first was the Riyadh summit of Arab and Muslim states with the US which affirmed a new alliance, the so-called Sunni NATO which ex-Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif was slated to head. The other was the recent rift between Qatar and other Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia, which started on June 5 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic and other ties with Qatar, accusing it of funding terrorism and of having too close ties with Iran.
While PM Sharif was in Jeddah to discuss the “emerging regional situation,” he was reportedly bluntly asked by King Salman: “Are you with us or with Qatar?” This was after the National Assembly of Pakistan had on 8 June expressed “its deep concern over recent developments in relations involving brotherly Muslim States in Gulf region,” and urged reconciliation, and PM Sharif had offered to play a mediating role.
It seems like deja vu. It was just a couple of years ago, in 2015, when PM Sharif and Pakistan faced a similar situation. The reason then was the Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen. Pakistan, which had and continues to provide policing and security services to many of the Gulf countries, was meant to get its boots on the ground in Yemen, where the Saudi-backed government was fighting a war with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
After initial hesitation, Pakistan announced that it would join the Saudi forces bombing Yemen. Pakistan’s leaders and army had sufficient reasons for backing such a controversial move. PM Sharif is beholden to the Saudi royal family, which took him in when he was overthrown by a military coup in 1999 and forced into exile. In 2014, Saudi Arabia gave a grant worth USD 1.5 billion to Pakistan to help Islamabad pay its debts and undertake much-needed infrastructure projects. Saudi investment, together with remittances from around 1.5 million Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia, are much needed.
The same is just as true of Pakistan’s relations with the UAE. Jointly the UAE and Saudi Arabia host 3 million Pakistani workers. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, foreign remittances from these countries in the period of July 2016 to April 2017 were $4.5 billion and $3.47 billion from Saudi Arabia and the UAE respectively.
Nevertheless, given that there were differences of opinion on joining the Saudi-led coalition against a fellow-Muslim country amongst the people of Pakistan, and a lack of consensus among political parties — the main opposition party of former cricketer Imran Khan had warned the government against joining the Saudi coalition — the issue was put to vote in parliament.
Many Pakistanis felt that the country, already reeling under terror attacks, increasingly sectarian in nature, and embroiled in its own war on terror with the Zarb-e-Azab, should not get embroiled with the Saudi-Iranian rivalry at the heart of the conflicts in the region. Moreover, Iran, being contiguous with Pakistan, could be expected to not sit back while Pakistan participated in operations that would ultimately target its protégé, the Houthis, and ultimately Iran itself. Many liberal Pakistanis were also uncomfortable with the fact that for some time now Pakistan has been undergoing a process of Arabization, evolving into what many cynically refer to as “Al-Bakistan.” A vast network of mosques and madrassahs, at least 50 percent of which are funded by the Saudis, has been promoting the Wahhabi form of Islam, leading to religious radicalism and sectarian strife. Violence against the Shia, who form 15 per cent of the population — at 200 million — and other religious minorities have increased, claiming thousands of lives.
If Pakistan has been precariously balancing its relations with the Arabs and Iran, then it becomes that much more difficult to do the same with different Gulf countries.
A 2010 Wikileaks cable said that then-Saudi ambassador to US and current Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir had said: “We in Saudi Arabia are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants.” Predictably Pakistan’s parliament voted against the country’s participation in the war in Yemen. That greatly strained Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These countries, taken unaware by the Arab Spring that fell regimes across the Middle East, have since been intent on regime security and maintaining the status quo. The rise of ISIS, an Iran unfettered by sanctions and increasing its influence in the region — as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and fighting a proxy war in Yemen — made a victory in Yemen an absolute necessity for them.
For instance, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash openly tweeted: “the moment of truth distinguishes between the real ally and the ally of media and statements … the vague and contradictory stands of Pakistan and Turkey are an absolute proof that Arab security … is the responsibility of none but Arab countries.” Arab editorials were critical of Pakistan and a number of Pakistani personalities were arrested in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The allegations against them were on grounds of security and visa irregularities but perceptions of a rift increased.
Simultaneously, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other GCC countries like Oman and Qatar moved closer to India. When Indian PM Narendra Modi paid a visit to the UAE later in 2015, both countries decided that their two national security advisers would meet every six months and would host regular counter-terrorism meets. This is an agreement India has not entered into with any other country. The UAE also agreed to work with India to adopt the Comprehensive Convention against Terrorism that India had piloted in the UN. The UAE’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan also attended the 2017 Republic Day celebrations in India as the Chief Guest, while on his visit to Riyadh in 2016 Narendra Modi was warmly received by King Salman and bestowed with the country’s highest civilian award.
All this assumes importance because the Gulf countries had not sufficiently appreciated India’s concerns regarding terrorism, while being closely allied with Pakistan, and the Pakistani press went into a great deal of speculation on whether Pakistan was losing its Gulf allies to India.
Although Pakistan had the new confidence of funds promised by China — USD 46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — it began placating its Arab friends almost immediately, There were high profile visits including some by PM Sharif. While he tried mediating between the Saudis and Iran, that initiative was stillborn and finally an agreement was reached whereby Pakistan would participate in a joint Arab-Muslim force, if one was floated, in Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition has been mired with no honorable exit in sight, and with an impasse ensuing. This was the precursor to the joint Arab-Muslim alliance against terror, which Raheel Sharif heads.
There was some relief in Pakistan’s strategic circles as the country’s stakes in the GCC were too high. However, fissures between Pakistan and the GCC persisted, as perceived by the Pakistani media which went into a great deal of speculation about the reception given to PM Sharif in Riyadh. Soon after the media reported that Raheel Sharif would quit his post with the alliance, and there were rumors that he was asked to do so.
The current rift between the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis on one hand, and Qatar on the other has now come back as a bad headache. If Pakistan has been precariously balancing its relations with the Arabs and Iran, then it becomes that much more difficult to do the same with different Gulf countries. Its stakes in Qatar are no less high. 115,000 Pakistanis live and work in Qatar and remit back precious foreign exchange — approximately USD 302 million, according to the State Bank of Pakistan — for a country that has huge external debts. Qatar has also invested in Pakistan like other GCC countries, and has business deals with PM Sharif’s family. Qatar has become an indispensable partner for Pakistan in its energy security. Energy-starved Pakistan last year signed a deal worth USD 16 billion for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for a period of 15 years, on terms that are believed to save Pakistan USD one billion every year.
has found support from both Iran and Turkey. Turkey is another close Muslim
ally, with the two countries sharing close military and economic ties and, like
Pakistan, is a strong non-Arab Sunni country.
Editorials in the Pakistani press have again warned Pakistan to take sides in this intra-Arab rift. Pakistan is waiting and watching wearily. But, as the rift deepens, this time around it may not be as easy for Pakistan to remain a fence-sitter.