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Exclusive: The road to Qatar

For Pakistan, the wicket just turned sticky with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt breaking off all diplomatic ties with Qatar, a close ally to Islamabad, by land, sea and air. The Gulf States have given a time of two weeks to the Qataris to leave their shores. Qatar has also been taken out of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) fighting in Yemen presently. Abu Dhabi has announced stopping its flights to and from Doha.

The timing is interesting, coming within a fortnight of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia to re-emphasize the need of building support against Iran, finalizing defense deals of $110bn with Riyadh and also setting up of an anti-extremist institute in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has long been accused of funding extremism- the decision to break all contacts with Qatar is part of countering the accusation.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the U.S-based Baker Institute. states, “”It seems that the Saudis and Emiratis feel emboldened by the alignment of their regional interests — toward Iran and Islamism — with the Trump administration.”[They] have decided to deal with Qatar’s alternative approach on the assumption that they will have the [Trump] administration’s backing.” (CBC News Jun 05, 2017)

In late May Qatar had complained that a series of malicious propaganda articles against Qatar were published in US. Qatar had also alleged that the Qatar government website was hacked “in a bid to undermine its standing in the Gulf and in Washington.” These alleged statements against Gulf States, praising Hamas, Iran, Hizbollah and Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly by the Qatari Emir were later removed shortly after it appeared on the QNA website. A statement by the Qatari Foreign Minister said it was false news planted by the hackers.

To put the record straight, this is not the first time that a tense situation has emerged between Qatar and the GCC nations. In March 2014, Bahrain, Saudi Arab, UAE on reason of Qatar not fulfilling her commitments towards them had recalled their ambassadors. A situation that continued for nearly a year before peace between them was restored and relations moved towards normalcy.

At this point in time with Qatar set to host the 2022 World Cup, the break-up can pose a huge set back to the preparations underway. Pakistan had announced training of some 200,000 Pakistanis to work in Qatar in building of infrastructure or the 2022 World Cup. Lest we forget, Qatar is also host to roughly 10,000 American troops at the al-Udeid air base.

Qatar’s neighbors have criticized her for her support of Muslim Brotherhood- a Sunni Islamist group, though political, that challenges the hereditary rule of Saudi Arabia. With overthrowing of Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar continued supporting it, whereas Saudi Arabia supported Abdel Fattah elSisi. In Syria too both countries have often supported opposing groups that has only led to empowering the groups creating a threat to regional stability.

Pakistan signed 15-year agreement to import up to 3.75 million tons of liquefied natural gas a year from Qatar in early February 2016. The House of Qatar has stood by the House of Sharif in their most difficult times. On the other hand, Saudi relations with Pakistan are very old. However, the recent Islamic Summit hosted by Saudi Arabia was a setback for Pakistan. Not only Prime Minister Nawaz was not asked to deliver his speech, by being quick to the draw in joining the IMAFT, Pakistan has clearly alienated Iran. “Pakistan’s foreign office has summoned the Iranian ambassador over an ultimatum by the head of Iran’s armed forces that his country will attack areas sheltering “terrorists” in Pakistan unless it tightens control over its borders and stops what he calls cross-border attacks.” (Al Jazeera 9 MAY 2017)

“While Washington sidelining Islamabad following Trump’s election was long coming, it is the continued lack of Saudi support at the international level that has reduced Pakistan’s status for the Kingdom of al-Saud to that of a security guard, without any contribution in narratives.” (Kunwar Khuldune Shahid: The Diplomat, May 23, 2017)

Pakistan’s Foreign Office in light of  the new development between Qatar and Gulf States was quick to issue a statement that she has no plans to cut ties with Qatar. However, as a friend Sikander Pasha mailed, echoing my concern, “It will not be long before we get this phone call from Saudi Arabia,’ Are you with us or against us?’ Are we ready to take that call?” Assuming that relations will remain the same between others in international relations is a fallacy. There are no friends in international relations. Only allies. The allies change with time.

Some have mailed suggesting Pakistan must immediately exit from IMAFT. This again, will be a knee jerk reaction. So what must Pakistan do? Sit on the sidelines and wait? That is not an option. Pakistan must devise a well crafted strategy and in doing so protect her interests with both countries.

Sir Ernest Satow, author of well-known Guide to Diplomatic Practice, writes, “Diplomacy, is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the Governments of independent States, extending sometimes also to other relations with vassal States.” This is what Pakistan needs. Back channel diplomacy with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and at a later stage bringing other Gulf States boycotting Qatar on board.

There are many successful stories of back channel diplomacy including the positive role played by Pope Francis in 2014 to bring back to normalcy the relationship between Cuba and US. “The pope’s secret role in the back-channel talks was crucial because, as a religious leader with the confidence of both sides, he was able to convince the Obama and Castro administrations that the other side would live up to the deal.” (The Los Angeles Times December 18, 2014)

What Pakistan needs is someone smart and savvy, knowing how the game of back channel diplomacy is played and broker and understanding between the two. Someone trusted by both.

~Yasmeen Aftab Ali