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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

The fact that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was accompanied by the army chief General Qamar Bajwa on the visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday makes it an exceptional event. Ostensibly, this was a mediatory mission to ease the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But General Bajwa’s involvement in a diplomatic mission instantly raises eyebrows.

One strong possibility is that this Pakistani mission actually serves the purpose of putting a united front to Riyadh while conveying a message regretting Pakistan’s inability to associate with the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA). Indeed, Pakistan has been agonizing over the matter and the Qatar crisis creates an acute dilemma.

In the emergent regional line-up, in strategic terms too, Pakistan has a problem identifying with the US-Saudi-Israeli quasi-alliance against Iran.

Pakistan has a hugely consequential relationship with Saudi Arabia. Three million Pakistani expatriates live and work in Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as compared to a little over a lakh in Qatar). Remittances from Saudi Arabia and UAE work out to a hefty $8 billion annually (while the corresponding figure for Qatar is just $30 million). Oil imports from Saudi Arabia and UAE amount to $7 billion.

Read more: Pakistan’s PM, Finance Minister & Army Chief on a trip to resolve Qatar crisis or something else?

Nonetheless, ideally, Pakistan would remain neutral in the Saudi-Qatari rift. (By the way, PM Sharif has high stakes in any testimony given by the former Qatar PM Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al Tani in the on-going trial in regard to the so-called “Panama case”.) The main reason would be that Pakistan cannot afford to alienate Iran or Turkey, which are backing Qatar. In the emergent regional line-up, in strategic terms too, Pakistan has a problem identifying with the US-Saudi-Israeli quasi-alliance against Iran. Again, Pakistan places high store on its Eurasian integration.

At such a time when tensions are running high in the Persian Gulf, Saudis should not get a feeling of Pakistani betrayal.

Islamabad made a hasty decision to grant special permission to the former army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif to accept the job offer from the Saudi king as the commander of the IMA. Conceivably, PM Sharif was not in a position to say ‘No’ to the Saudis, and the political and strategic ramifications were not thought through. Now it is apparent that Saudi belligerence is rising, borne out of the confidence that US President Donald Trump has revived the old US-Saudi alliance.

Obviously, Pakistan should worry because God only knows where all this newfound Saudi belligerence is leading to, especially with a hot-headed, impetuous Deputy Crown Prince in his thirty-something with no real experience in statecraft or diplomacy (who also doubles up as Defence Minister) – Mohammad bin Salman – calling the shots in Riyadh. Bizarre things seem to be happening in the corridors of power in Saudi Arabia. The famous Saudi whistle-blower Mujtahid, who apparently has access to the Saudi royal family (and might even be an ‘insider’, as some say) just tweeted that there has been a showdown between Mohammad bin Salman and members of Al ash-Sheikh (Saudi Arabia’s leading religious family), with the latter refusing to endorse Riyadh’s standoff with Qatar.

Read more: Neutrality not an option: Pakistan to choose between Qatar or Saudi Arabia

However, any decision to distance Pakistan from the IMA will be a highly sensitive move. For a start, Pakistan will need to be careful not to ruffle the Saudi feathers. At such a time when tensions are running high in the Persian Gulf, Saudis should not get a feeling of Pakistani betrayal. The bottom line is that without Pakistani participation, IMA is a non-starter. This is one thing.

The big question is whether PM Sharif and Gen. Bajwa undertook the mission to Riyadh with a dual purpose.

On the other hand, the recent terrorist strikes in Tehran (with the Iranian leadership pointing finger at US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia), only go to highlight that a flashpoint can arise any moment. All in all, therefore, the judicious thing to do will be for Pakistan to move to neutral ground. An editorial in the influential Dawn newspaper from Karachi strongly argued in this direction:

Pakistani national interest requires it to stay neutral in the current crisis. That should not be impossible, but it would require Pakistan to suspend its military participation in the IMA and withdraw retired Gen Raheel Sharif from his command of future IMA forces… Saudi leadership has made clear that it primarily wants to contain Iran and, now, cut Qatar down to size — effectively destroying any possibility that the IMA can ever become a platform for all Muslim-majority countries to come together to fight militancy and terrorism… Withdrawal from the IMA has become essential.

Read more: Qatar: Another reason for the rift between NATO allies?

The big question is whether PM Sharif and Gen. Bajwa undertook the mission to Riyadh with a dual purpose – seemingly mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while in reality sensitizing the Saudi leadership of Pakistan’s intention not to entangled in the IMA.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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