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News Analysis

ISLAMABAD – The Press Information Department (PID) of Pakistan, disclosed on Monday that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Bajwa left for Saudi Arabia on a day-long visit in the backdrop of a deepening diplomatic rift in the Middle East.

The PM and COAS, were accompanied by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Adviser to the PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and other senior officials, according to the PID

The reason behind this delegation, as reported by Pakistan PID, is to supposedly hold talks with Saudi leadership concerning the deteriorating relations between Gulf nations after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Most newspapers faithfully carried PID’s version.

Read More: Anti-Qatar media campaign in the Gulf: Cracks in the Islamic Military…

The timing of this trip is being deemed very curious by commentators given the current political turmoil and the shaky relations between civil and military power centers.

Sudden Timing Surprised Political Circles in Islamabad

However the sudden announcement of the departure and its timings surprised political circles, media pundits and diplomats. Pakistan’s initial response to what is now being refereed to as the “Qatar Crisis” had been very cautious and muted. Pakistan Foreign Office only figured twice in international media. First, when it clarified that Pakistan is not cutting its diplomatic relations with Qatar; Second, when it rejected the news item that it is, like Turkey, sending its troops to Qatar. Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman did stress the need for unity in the Muslim world and urged the countries involved to engage in dialogue. However, unlike many other countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Oman – it had no clear position.

PM Nawaz’s sudden trip to Saudi Arabia, with his military chief, taking along finance Minister, Ishaq Dar was also surprising because PM, less than 12 hours ago, had been summoned by the Panama JIT to appear before it along with documentary evidence to support the process of investigation. Panama JIT also includes two senior army officers (from ISI and MI) whose inclusion was belatedly challenged and criticized by ruling party, PMLN.

PM Nawaz’s sudden trip to Saudi Arabia, with his military chief, taking along finance Minister, Ishaq Dar was also surprising because PM, less than 12 hours ago, had been summoned by the Panama JIT to appear before it along with documentary evidence to support the process of investigation.

Finance Minister has also been summoned, and while his statement, regarding his controversial confessional affidavit, of money laundering on behalf of PM Nawaz and family, in Hudaibiya Paper Mills Case (HPMC) has not been recorded so far, some of the people mentioned or familiar with the confessional statement (like Saeed Ahmed, currently President National Bank) had been interviewed and summoned (like Kashif Masood Qazi of Qazi family of UK) by the Joint Investigative Team (JIT). So the timings of the trip and inclusion of finance minister, Ishaq Dar, created media speculations that trip has less to do with saving Qatar and more to do with the leadership’s domestic troubles with ongoing Panama investigations in which role of army officers matters.

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Pakistan’s lack of clear position on Qatar Crisis?

Pakistanis were therefore disappointed from their leadership and much impressed by Turkish leader, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s assertive position of supporting Qatar , with a contingent of Turkish troops, despite the fact that Turkey too was an active participant at the recent Muslim nations’s summit in Riyadh and supported Saudi initiatives and enjoys excellent relations with Saudi monarchy.

Pakistanis often pride themselves as the only nuclear power in the Muslim world. Country possesses large western style disciplined army, battle hardened troops with significant experience of counter insurgencies and UN peacekeeping missions. Till recent past, Pakistani troops have served in Saudi Arabia for training and logistical support. Currently Pakistan’s ex-Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is heading the Saudi lead Muslim Military Alliance. Many in Pakistan therefore expected their country to take a clear position, a balancing role, commensurate with country’s size and standing in the Muslim world, from the very beginning.

Pakistanis were therefore disappointed from their leadership and much impressed by Turkish leader, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s assertive position of supporting Qatar , with a contingent of Turkish troops, despite the fact that Turkey too was an active participant at the recent Muslim nations’s summit in Riyadh and supported Saudi initiatives and enjoys excellent relations with Saudi monarchy. Pakistanis also noted with interest that Turkey, a Nato member, was clearly defying the rhetoric of US President, Donald Trump, who was seen openly supporting the Saudi & Egyptian blockade of Qatar.

Pakistan, however, abstained from taking a strong or clear stance and last week lawmakers at the National Assembly expressed “deep concern” over the diplomatic rift. They passed a resolution urging all countries to “show restraint and resolve their differences through dialogue”. Many in the official circles, in foreign office and senior bureaucracies in Islamabad, however cautioned that Pakistan has large ex-pat diasporas working across Saudi Arabia and UAE and given the polarized atmosphere in the region country needs to tread cautiously in taking any position.

Qatari Delegation’s visit to Lahore and Islamabad

A six-member Qatari delegation reportedly visited Islamabad last week, towards the beginning of second week of June, to relay a message from the Qatari Emir, asking Pakistan to play a positive role in resolving the diplomatic crisis engulfing the Middle East.

These and other developments, and rhetoric of the ruling party, makes many believe that Sharif family and PMLN are now working actively to turn the Panama JIT into a civil – military confrontation; and a corruption case against the ruling family into a “defense of democracy” battle cry that resonates well with international media and diplomatic community. 

But surprisingly, Pakistan Foreign Office was initially found unaware of the visit of Qatari delegation; it, when questioned, had denied knowledge of any such visit but sources later revealed that Foreign Office’s confusion lied in the fact that the Qatari delegation only briefly visited Islamabad and spent a significant amount of time in Lahore and, reportedly, Raiwind – meeting the ruling Sharif family. This further creates the impression that Pakistan’s foreign policy is managed more on personal relations and needs rather than a coherent, national institutional response – as seen in the case of Turkey, whose President took an open transparent position but did not personally travel to any country.

Read More: The Gulf tightening its noose: What are Qatar’s real options?

Speculations on the timing and nature of trip?

The timing and exact nature of this trip is therefore subject of speculations in Islamabad’s political, diplomatic and media circles.  The recent mounting criticism of Panama JIT by Sharif family and ruling PMLN and especially the sharply worded attacks in public domain on the inclusion of military officers in JIT and insinuations in the political gossip mill that military is somehow behind the JIT or even supreme court gives fuel to these speculations.

A recent editorial which appeared in Dawn has also raised eyebrows for suddenly questioning the purpose of the inclusion of officers from MI and ISI.

PML-N leaders have only recently reversed their stance on the military’s involvement in the Panama JIT, after more than a month of its formation started raising questions regarding the expertise of the officers participating. Initially, many in media and opposition had objected to the army officers inclusion on the grounds that they have been added to lend credibility to a process that appeared very weak and toothless, because civil servants, from subservient departments like FIA and NAB, will not be able to question Chief executives of the country. PMLN at that time appeared to have welcomed the inclusion of army officers – since it needed the investigation to look credible.

Nawaz’s own complex personal relations with both Saudis and Qataris are also on many minds. Saudis have been long time backers of Sharif; provided him with asylum and later rehabilitation into Pakistani politics in 2007 when in the wake of Musharraf’s NRO with Benazir Bhutto they insisted that Nawaz be allowed back into Pakistani politics

A recent editorial which appeared in Dawn, and considered sympathetic to the Sharif government, has also suddenly raised questions on the inclusion and role of army officers from MI and ISI – though paper initially remained silent when Supreme court in its 20th April decision included army officers. These and other developments, and rhetoric of the ruling party, makes many believe that Sharif family and PMLN are now working actively to turn the Panama JIT into a civil – military confrontation; and a corruption case against the ruling family into a “defense of democracy” battle cry that resonates well with international media and diplomatic community.

It is in this context and background that sudden travel plans of PM Nawaz Sharif, and his finance minister, both under investigation before Panama JIT, along with Military Chief, raise speculations and fears that PM and finance minister will somehow manage to exert pressure on the Army chief through the Saudi monarchy in order to bail him out of his legal and political troubles in Panama investigations.

Pundits are therefore of the opinion that the basic motive for Nawaz’s sudden rush to Saudi Arabia has less to do with Pakistan’s national interest or foreign policy posture and more to secure his personal political interests at this troubled stage.

Nawaz’s own complex personal relations with both Saudis and Qataris are also on many minds. Saudis have been long time backers of Sharif; provided him with asylum and later rehabilitation into Pakistani politics in 2007 when in the wake of Musharraf’s NRO with Benazir Bhutto they insisted that Nawaz be allowed back into Pakistani politics despite his Saudi brokered agreement of December 2000, to stay away for 10 years in lieu of freezing corruption and other cases against him. Qatari royal Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al-Thani sent the much-touted “Qatari letter” to the Supreme Court regarding Nawaz’s financial dealings.

Pundits are therefore of the opinion that the basic motive for Nawaz’s sudden rush to Saudi Arabia has less to do with Pakistan’s national interest or foreign policy posture and more to secure his personal political interests at this troubled stage. But If the cold shoulder he was given at the Riyadh summit is any indication, he may have a hard time getting the sympathetic ear of the Saudis.

Read More: Neutrality not an option: Pakistan to choose between Qatar or Saudi…

It is clear that the current crisis in the Middle East is the unintentional (or intentional) consequence of a Donald Trump presidency. If Pakistan is to secure its national security interests with respect to Afghanistan, it is imperative to re-energize diplomatic ties with its partners from both sides of the divide.

The Army Chief on the other hand, may have a wholly different agenda and concerns on his mind. Official circles close to Prime Minister’s team argue that while it may be true that both Gen. Bajwa and Nawaz Sharif have a lot to discuss with regards to the current political situation but the presence of the COAS in such a high powered delegation suggests that there are larger, more important goals than petty political squabbles. But how will Army Chief’s presence make a difference in a situation that demands Pakistan’s skilled and savvy political role and not military intervention is not clear.

Some officials in Islamabad argue that in the unfortunate absence of a fully empowered, functional and energetic Foreign Minister, the duty of foreign diplomacy at a difficult moment in Gulf region has involved Pakistan’s army chief; others remain skeptical and suspect a personal angle to this initiative.

1 COMMENT

  1. Army chief bajwa is there to “settled” down corruption charges for NS facing in JIT for the price of Saudi monarchy’s attention to get a royal job after retirement just like his predecessor did.

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