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Amid a potentially incendiary Qatar crisis, Pakistan’s position and foreign policy choices are likely to be affected. Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to take a  position on the ongoing dispute in the Middle East regarding Qatar, during a meeting between King Salman and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Jeddah.

On Monday Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with COAS General Bajwa and Finance Minister set out for Saudi Arabia in a bid to mediate over the Qatar row which saw several Arab countries sever ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism. Well-placed sources within the diplomatic community said that King Salman asked PM Nawaz Sharif if he was with Saudi Arabia or Qatar in the ongoing spat?

Pakistan which has thus far resolved to maintain neutrality in the issue will now be in a quandary as pressure mounts on Islamabad. The Foreign Office has made it clear that Pakistan wishes unity between the Muslim countries and would remain neutral on the issue.

The crisis simmers

Sharif’s closeness with the Kingdom is well-known as he was saved and given refuge in the Kingdom when  General Musharraf had imprisoned him after the coup. KSA has been generous in helping Pakistan economically and it has a large Pakistani working diaspora.

A confident Saudi-led anti-Qatar drive is matched equally by the defiance of Qatar. Doha, it must be stressed has been openly supported by countries in Turkey and Iran. Saudi Arabia is roping in African countries to boycott Qatar while the US is changing goal posts, with the Pentagon cracking weapon deals with Qatar and Trump denouncing Doha.

It is quite reasonable to argue that the Qatar crisis will likely to fester with more players getting involved in the days to come. Iran’s strengthening ties with the small Gulf State has propelled the US to fast track the weapon deal with Doha. As the issue conflagrates, Pakistan may find it difficult to take the sagacious option of staying away.

Read more: Gulf crisis and the future of Middle East

The Dilemma

Pakistan has healthy relations with both countries and hence it puts it in a catch 22 situation. Moreover, Pakistan’s predicament has got to do with personal ties that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif enjoys with both countries. His family is being probed in Panama leaks scandal where Qatari Prince Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al-Thani is playing a role to rescue them. Qatari Prince Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al-Thani regretted that he could not appear before the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the Panama Papers case against the Sharif family as he was ‘busy but his letter was delivered. It is learned that 2 members of the JIT will visit Qatar to further probe into the case.

Sharif’s closeness with the Kingdom is well-known as he was saved and given refuge in the Kingdom when  General Musharraf had imprisoned him after the coup. KSA has been generous in helping Pakistan economically and it has a large Pakistani working diaspora.

Pakistan must stay neutral in Qatar crisis

Pakistan had earlier decided to condition its participation in the 39-state Islamic military alliance so as to minimize the negative ramifications on its ties with Iran.

The concerted surge against Qatar is primarily due to concerns that the country is strengthening ties with Tehran. It is believed that Qatar does not toe  Saudi Arabia in its vehemently anti-Iran stance. Earlier this year, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani said that his country enjoyed deep and historical ties with Iran.
In a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Al-Thani said he wanted the ties with Iran to be “stronger than ever before.”

Doubts over the fact that this boycott was done because of Doha’s ties with Tehran were removed when James Mattis alluded to Iran while commenting on the issue.James Mattis said that Iran lies at the heart of the problem. “”Iran’s actions speak louder than anyone’s words,” he said. Pakistan should steer clear of this intra-GCC tiff and the overall conflict between the bastions of the Islamic world: Iran and USA.

Pakistan, with a tendency for falling prey to sectarianism, can ill-afford to do anything other than deft diplomacy.The first thing is to convince Iran that Pakistan will not fight a sectarian war on behalf of the alliance, something which looks rather difficult. Headquartered in Saudi Arabia, the alliance has been given a heavily sectarian undertone by the categorical labeling of Iran as a fulcrum of terrorism by President Donald Trump last month. Pakistan, it must be stressed does not have the luxury to takes sides in the ever-worsening ties between the GCC countries and Iran. Pakistan had earlier decided to condition its participation in the 39-state Islamic military alliance so as to minimize the negative ramifications on its ties with Iran.

Read more: Stepping up the pressure: Saudi strong arms Muslim nations to take sides in Gulf crisis

The pressure will mount on Pakistan due to a host of factors but policy-makers have to maintain the stand of neutrality . As of now the country is mired in other issues on the external frontages with India and Afghanistan. Sectarian underpinnings makes the Doha-saga a dangerous one for Islamabad

Government sources insisted that until TORs are not decided, Pakistan would not join the alliance.  Pakistan is likely to take up the matter in the Defense Ministers Conference to be held in a few weeks from now. It will broach upon the fact that it should only be asked to fight terrorism, any deviation would lead to rifts between Muslims, something which Pakistan cannot be a party to.

Pakistan enjoys good relations with Qatar especially in the field of energy and defense. Earlier this year, while on an official visit to Qatar, COAS General Bajwa said: “Pak-Qatar defense cooperation will have a positive impact on bilateral relations as well as on regional security.”

Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani during a meeting with the COAS expressed his desire to learn from Pakistan Army’s experience in security domain and also sought assistance during forthcoming Football World Cup including the provision of manpower.

Qatar has time and again expressed its desires to improve defense ties with Pakistan. While visiting Pakistan last year Minister of State for Defence Affairs Dr. Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah showed a willingness to strengthen defense relations.

The minister of state expressed his country’s willingness to purchase defense equipment and hardware from Pakistan and hailed the services of Pakistani defense personnel in the Qatari armed forces.

Read more: The Middle East Spat Intensifies as enmity increases between Iran and Saudi Arabia

“Qatar is keen to have joint ventures with Pakistan in the area of defense production,” the minister said. Both countries signed a  $16 billion deal of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for a period of 15 years. Pakistan has been suffering from a severe energy crisis and the import of LNG from Qatar would be a positive step to address the issue. The deal has large prospects for the energy sector as Pakistan would be able to meet its energy shortages

The pressure will mount on Pakistan due to a host of factors but policy-makers have to maintain the standard of neutrality. As of now, the country is mired in other issues on the external frontages with India and Afghanistan. Sectarian underpinnings make the Doha-saga a dangerous one for Islamabad.

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