For decades, Pakistan has walked a diplomatic tightrope between its close ally Saudi Arabia and its western neighbor Iran. As a Sunni-dominant Muslim country as well as home to the third-largest number of Shias in the world after Iran and India, Pakistan has always faced a unique dilemma in its Middle East policy. Somehow, Islamabad has managed to remain neutral in the Middle Eastern geo-political and geo-sectarian rivalries to avoid the Sunni-Shia conflict at home.
However, in recent years, the downward spiral in Saudi-Iran relations, the worsening Syrian conflict, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the rise of new diplomatic rivalries between the Sunni Arab states have created new complications for Pakistan.
Historically, Pakistan has attached great significance to its relations with the Muslim world, especially the Middle Eastern countries. Pakistan considers it a fiat of its foreign policy that it has always played a bridging role between the two rival blocks of the Muslim world. For instance, in the 1980s, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Pakistan remained impartial in line with its stated policy of neutrality and non-intervention. However, given the evolving regional situation in the Middle East, Islamabad must tread cautiously where both partiality and neutrality will be costly politically and economically.
In 2015, Pakistan weathered the relentless demands from Riyadh to contribute troops to launch the Saudi-led ground offensive in Yemen. Islamabad wriggled out of the Saudi pressure by arguing that its military was outstretched at three internal fronts — the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Karachi, and the southwestern Balochistan province. Notwithstanding the Saudi pressure, the Pakistani parliament unanimously passed a resolution declaring not to become a party in the Yemen conflict and advocated a political solution to the problem instead of war.
In retaliation against Pakistan’s refusal, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash warned Pakistan of dire consequences. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with the former army chief General (Retired) Raheel Sharif visited both Iran and Saudi Arabia to find a diplomatic solution to the Yemini crisis without avail. However, through this visit Pakistan reassured both the Sunni and Shia constituencies within the country of its position of neutrality.
In the case of Syria, Pakistan faced more or less similar pressure in 2014 from Saudi Arabia, which offered generous aid money for providing training and weapons to different Saudi-backed Syrian rebel groups. Initially, Pakistan slightly altered its stance on Syria by moving closer to the Saudi position which demanded the ouster of the Assad regime as a pre-condition for resolving the conflict. However, when the opposition parties in Pakistan pressured the government to clarify its principal position on Syria, the Pakistani foreign office reiterated a UN-backed solution of the Syrian crisis.
Pakistan neither has the political clout nor the diplomatic wherewithal to play the role of middleman between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Presently, the diplomatic conflagration between, and blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait, and Bahrain of Qatar has put Pakistan in a very awkward position. It is a test for Pakistan’s foreign policy and something the country has never witnessed before. So far, Islamabad has maintained a fine balance. On June 9, 2017, the Pakistani Parliament passed a resolution calling for the immediate resolution of the crisis. While Pakistan’s foreign ministry showed concern over the escalating Saudi-Qatar crisis, it did not endorse either side.
Pakistan cannot afford to take sides in the Saudi-Qatar standoff for three particular reasons. First, Islamabad has cordial relations both with Riyadh and Doha. By siding with either side, Pakistan will lose its position of neutrality as an impartial arbiter in times of crisis in the Middle East. Moreover, sympathies with Qatar will anger the Saudis while a tilt towards the latter will alienate the former. Second, a large number of expatriate Pakistanis are employed in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The foreign remittances sent from these two countries constitute the major portion of Pakistan’s annual income from abroad. Third, if Pakistan takes sides in the Qatar-Saudi crisis, it will have a direct bearing on Pakistan’s sectarian conflict.
Pakistan’s current position is similar to Kuwait’s and Oman’s stances of playing the mediation role to defuse the crisis politically. The larger question that begs answer is whether Pakistan possesses enough political leverage to resolve the diplomatic crisis and strike a deal between the Saudis and Qataris. Many believe the most powerful tool in Islamabad’s hands is its close ties with both Doha and Riyadh.
As opposed to the Yemeni and Syrian crises, the Saudi demand to Pakistan this time has been rather blunt and hawkish: “Are you with us or with Qatar?” The demand to take a clear stance on the Qatar-Saudi crisis came to the fore during a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz on June 14. This has put Islamabad in a catch-22 situation. To placate the Saudis, Pakistan has promised to use its clout with Qatar to defuse the situation. Furthermore, without making any public statement, Pakistan has shelved its USD 2 billion LNG import deal with Qatar.
Keeping in view the rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the region, Islamabad will have to review its Middle East policy to avoid any negative fallout. In the months and years ahead, Pakistan’s relations with the Middle East will get more complicated beyond the Tehran-Riyadh binary. Arguably, the Qatar-Saudi rivalry is reshaping the regional order in the Middle East.
Beyond rhetoric and the goodwill factor, Pakistan neither has the political clout nor the diplomatic wherewithal to play the role of middleman between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Though Iran and Turkey have rushed to Qatar’s rescue, Pakistan should tread this path with caution. At the same time, the way Riyadh has snubbed Islamabad at the Islamic-Arab-US summit in May can lead to calls for Pakistan to reconsider its decision to head the Saudi-led 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance now that it is quite clear that the aim of this alliance is to isolate Iran and now Qatar.