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Updated July 16, 2017


Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

Last month, with the Saudi and Emirati-led efforts to isolate Qatar, and the militant Islamic State (IS) group’s attacks in Tehran, new fronts opened in the Greater Middle East war, making Pakistan’s regional balancing act even more difficult.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

When Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the third time in 2013, there was an expectation that Pakistan’s relationship with the Saudis would return to normal. Riyadh, it is said, kept President Asif Ali Zardari at a distance.

But Mian Sahib was different. He had a deep history with the Saudis. Not just business interests. It also could be said that he owed his life to them. Riyadh gave him refuge in 2000, after he was deposed and put on trial by military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf.

With the Qatar Crisis, Pakistan has been caught in the middle between competing interests in the Gulf. Eos looks at the stakes involved and possible ways for Pakistan to navigate choppy waters

Alas, reality has complicated expectations of a return to a smooth relationship with the Gulf Arab states. By 2013, the Middle East had become the setting for multiple vortices of violence.

The Arab Spring that began in 2011 devolved into an Arab Winter in the backdrop of an Iran- Saudi cold war. In July 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, ending Egypt’s brief experiment with (an albeit flawed) democratic rule. The Syrian uprising, which began with peaceful protests, emerged as the new frontline in the global jihad, which included rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United States as well as Iran’s Quds Force. The IS also emerged in Syria. Yemen began to fall apart again, and the Houthi rebels, with ties to Iran, took over Sana’a in 2014 and remain a threat along the Saudi border.

During this period, the Saudis have tried to coax Pakistan to join multiple blocs: first against the Syrian regime, then against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and more recently a broader “Islamic” anti-terror coalition. Now, Pakistan may be pressed to join the Saudi-UAE axis against Qatar. Via intermediaries, Doha has been issued a 13-point set of demands by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, including the shutdown of the Al Jazeera news network. The 10-day ultimatum has passed, indicating that Qatar has more staying power than most observers had assumed, and this intra-GCC crisis will linger on.

Pakistan’s relations with the Persian Gulf are more complicated than ever before. While Pakistan and the Sharif family have strong ties to Saudi Arabia, they also have a blossoming relationship with Qatar, as well as Doha’s close partner Turkey. Pakistan is truly caught between a rock and a hard place.


The Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani
The Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani

When Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died in 2015, he was succeeded by his brother Salman. But with an outsized role behind the scenes is Salman’s son, the Defence Minister and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. MBS, as he is known in the West, has ushered in a hawkish Saudi foreign policy aimed at taking on Iran, whom the Saudis see as an aspiring regional hegemon. Soon after Salman’s rise to power, Riyadh launched a war in Yemen to push back the Houthi rebels and reinstate the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (who had resigned in 2015).

Pakistan’s relations with the Persian Gulf are more complicated than ever before. While Pakistan and the Sharif family have strong ties to Saudi Arabia, they also have a blossoming relationship with Qatar, as well as Doha’s close partner Turkey. Pakistan is truly caught between a rock and a hard place.

Saudi-Pakistan relations took a hit after the Sharif government refused to participate in the Yemen war after Riyadh had presumptuously announced Pakistan’s joining the supposed Yemen war. Not only did the Pakistani parliament unanimously vote in favour of a resolution against involvement in Yemen, but the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was feted by leading Pakistani politicians when he arrived before the passing of the parliamentary resolution — a display of Tehran’s soft power in Pakistan.

Islamabad’s decision to allow former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif to serve as commander of the Riyadh-led, 41-country Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) has provided an opportunity to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia damaged in the aftermath of Pakistan’s wise decision to not take part in what has become a disastrous Yemen war. But it has also been controversial domestically and complicated relations with Iran, which sees IMAFT as an anti-Iran coalition — a concern that has been validated to some degree by the criticism directed at Tehran in the speeches at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit held in Riyadh last month.

Both Iran and a large spectrum of Pakistanis are also concerned by funding for extremist groups in Pakistan, including anti-Shia outfits, emanating from Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. In the past, groups like Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan have branded themselves as bulwarks against “Iranian expansionism” in part to curry favour with Gulf Arab patrons. Already, some Pakistani clerics have made their way to Riyadh, where they speak out against Houthi rebels — an indication that the old playbook is back in the hands of some regional actors.


Pakistan has good reason not to want to antagonise Iran. The two countries share a border separating their respective, restive Balochistan regions. Iran has in the past allegedly supported Shia militant groups inside Pakistan, such as Sipah-i-Muhammad Pakistan, and is believed to continue to maintain ties to some of these outfits. Given the connection of sectarian groups such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi to the anti-state jihad waged by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, it was also important for Islamabad to insulate itself from the broader regional sectarian war, and stay out of the Syria and Yemen mess.

Indeed, Islamabad initially offered diplomatic support for Syrian rebels in 2013, which was followed by a mysterious Saudi grant of 1.5 billion dollars to Pakistan in 2014. But it has since backtracked and expressed support for the present Syrian government, coming closer to Tehran’s position. There are also energy considerations for Islamabad — Iran is a potential supplier of natural gas, of which Pakistan has a massive supply shortfall.

The Sharif family also has a personal connection to the Qatari royal family. Long-time Sharif stalwart of dubious repute Saif-ur-Rehman is based in Doha. He secured a deal for a 49 percent stake in the Port Qasim Power Project for al-Mirqab Capital, which is owned by the former prime minister of Qatar.

But it remains to be seen how much Pakistan has gained from its relationship with Iran. The arrest of Kulbhushan Yadhav suggests that the Iranians had allowed the Indians to use its territory to engage in funny business in Pakistan.

The Iranians too have legitimate concerns about the use of Pakistani territory by the successor groups to Jundullah, a militant Sunni Iranian Baloch outfit. While it appears that Iranian Kurds were behind the IS attacks in Tehran, it is conceivable that the terror group could also try to use militants in Balochistan to attack Iran.

Iran has also emerged as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, eclipsing Pakistan. According to the Afghan government, Afghan exports to Iran in 2016 totaled around 20 million dollars, compared to 1.8 billion dollars in imports from Iran. In contrast, in 2015, Afghanistan’s exports to Pakistan were valued at 226 million dollars, compared to 1.35 billion dollars in imports from Pakistan.

With the prolonged closures of the Chaman and Torkham border crossings in the recent past, Afghan trade with the outside world is being increasingly routed through Iran.

To reduce dependence on Pakistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has sought to use the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, as opposed to the Pakistani port of Karachi, which is the closest port to most Afghan cities.

Iran has reportedly stepped up its recruitment of Afghans, and to a lesser extent, Pakistani Muslims to fight in Syria. Iran has also increased its support for the Afghan Taliban reportedly, according to the Wall Street Journal, to counter the spread of IS in Afghanistan, offering the group financial assistance and weapons. Iran allegedly now even hosts training camps for the Taliban. While Tehran is a potential partner for Islamabad in a diplomatic resolution to the Afghan war — its growing economic and military clout also indicates that it could once again become a competitor.


US President Donald Trump with Arab and Islamic countries’ leaders during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh | Reuters
US President Donald Trump with Arab and Islamic countries’ leaders during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh | Reuters

When Parliament voted in favour of a resolution advocating neutrality in the Yemen war, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) State Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash furiously tweeted that Pakistan “will pay a price” for its “ambiguous stand.” The UAE, some observers believe, has since tilted in India’s favour — a move symbolised by the participation earlier this year of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the chief guest at the India’s Republic Day celebration. The two countries have also enhanced intelligence sharing in recent years — an important development as the UAE takes a hawkish approach toward Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, hence the hard line against Qatar.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would like to cut Doha down to size. They disdain Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its ambitious foreign policy, strategic use of the Al Jazeera news channel, and unwillingness to take a backseat to them. As a result, they’ve brought Bahrain, Egypt, and several other countries on board as part of an anti-Qatar coalition, downgrading ties and blockading the country.

Unconfirmed reports claim that Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa were told by the Saudi leadership in Riyadh: you’re either with us or with the Qataris.

While Pakistan has balked from joining the anti- Qatar alliance, it is clear that intra-Gulf Arab conflict continues to pose problems for Pakistan.

And that is why the “evolving situation in the Middle East” and “its implications on Pakistan” was discussed at this month’s Corps Commanders conference.

Punitive action toward Pakistan by Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be devastating.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is a major source of remittances for Pakistan. A combined 63 percent of remittance inflows into Pakistan came from the Gulf Arab states in FY 2015-16.

Pakistan is far more invested in the stability of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as compared to Iran or Qatar. A significant deterioration in relations between Pakistan and either or both of the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heavyweights will have a significant impact on the stability of Pakistan’s economy, which is already stressed due to declining exports and a rise in public debt.


Until recently, Qatar has largely been an afterthought in Pakistan’s diplomacy and relations toward the Gulf. The country sticks out of the Arabian Peninsula like a thumb, but it has effectively been giving the middle finger to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, pursuing an independent strategy in Libya and Syria, as well as the broader Arab world. Qatar has sponsored Muslim Brotherhood activists and intellectuals, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bankrolled the El-Sisi dictatorship in Egypt with billions of dollars in aid. To curb Doha’s strategic defiance, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have launched a blockade of the tiny peninsula. Other countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, have joined in the boycott of Qatar. It is unclear whether there is pressure on Pakistan to follow suit, but greater proximity between Doha and Islamabad is likely to earn the ire of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

While Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are Pakistan’s primary sources of oil, the Doha-Islamabad relationship is budding in large part due to Qatar’s dominance of the LNG market. Qatar is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, while Pakistan has a large natural gas deficit and domestic reserves are declining. A long-term LNG deal signed with Doha in 2015 is an important part of meeting that deficit and fuelling not just industrial gas demand, but also fuelling the LNG-based electric power plants that have or will come on line this year.

The Sharif family also has a personal connection to the Qatari royal family. Longtime Sharif stalwart of dubious repute Saif-ur-Rehman is based in Doha. He secured a deal for a 49 percent stake in the Port Qasim Power Project for al-Mirqab Capital, which is owned by Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Al Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar. Sheikh Hamad, or HBJ as he is known by many, is also the author of the Qatari letter, which purports that the proceeds for the purchase of the London flats were obtained through investments in the Al Thani family’s real estate business.

There may also be an emerging strategic element to Pakistan-Qatar ties — one that also involves Turkey. The Qataris and Turks share sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and a similar outlook toward the region. Turkey has established a base in Qatar and its parliament recently approved sending several hundred more troops to the Gulf country.

In recent years, both Qatar and Turkey have both strengthened ties with Pakistan. The Qataris have also expressed interest in setting up joint defence production facilities with Pakistan and Turkey. And in the PML-N’s latest tenure, relations between Pakistan and Turkey have grown at the diplomatic, economic, and military levels. The cooperation has ranged from waste management contracts for Turkish companies in Lahore and Rawalpindi to procurement of defence hardware such as naval corvettes. Both Qatar and Turkey have purchased the Super Mushshak trainer aircraft from Pakistan. The momentum, at the very least, suggests that a triangular Pakistan-Qatar-Turkey partnership is in the offing.


Some may argue that Pakistan should simply stay out of the mess in the Persian Gulf and let the region sort itself out. But isolationism is no option for Pakistan. The region is a major source of energy and remittances for Pakistan, and home to holy sites and places of religious learning for both Sunni and Shia Muslims.

A better approach would be to avoid hard alliances and calibrate more nuanced bilateral relationships in the region.

As the tumult in the Persian Gulf continues, there are four principles Pakistan should abide by to weather the storm and minimise negative externalities at home.

One, Pakistan must ensure that its territory, principally Balochistan, is not used to destabilise Iran. There has been speculation that, in the past, Jundullah was allowed to use Pakistani territory to attack Iran. The group has since split and reorganised in recent years. But Pakistan has had difficulty controlling its side of the border. And this has resulted in tensions and threats from Iranian officials after the killing of their personnel.

It is conceivable that some Gulf Arab states may request that Pakistan allow its territory to be used to support insurgents in Iran. But this would likely blowback in Gwadar. Iran could use its own Baloch population to strike Pakistan, given the free flow of people along the border. Pakistan cannot afford to subordinate its economic revival programme to the intrigue of wealthy foreign states. In fact, Iran should be integrated into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — or, at the very least, not driven by Pakistani actions to become an antagonist. Pakistan should also take necessary action to restrict funding from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states for madressahs and other groups that engage in sectarian or militant activity.

Two, Pakistan should convey to Iran that it cannot tolerate the recruitment of Pakistanis for fighting abroad. The obvious danger is that they could eventually be used in Pakistan. It may be too much for Pakistan to ask Iran to curb its recruitment of Afghans, though this may have a direct or indirect impact on Pakistani security.

But the trade-off for Iran would be mutual cooperation for peace and stability in Sistan-Baluchistan, in return for making Pakistani Shias off-limits.

Three, Pakistan should manage expectations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, signaling that it values their concerns with respect to the broader region, while asserting its strategic autonomy.

Pakistan’s non-participation in the Yemen war may have suggested to some in Tehran that it has a veto power over Pakistan’s policy toward the region. Islamabad’s granting of a no-objection certificate for Raheel Sharif to serve as IMAFT effectively negated that perception. And it may give Pakistan space to resist pressure to partake in the isolation of Qatar, with whom Pakistan has a long-term LNG deal. In all likelihood, IMAFT will amount to little. But having Raheel serve as its commander was an important confidence building measure with the Saudi leadership, especially defence minister and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Four, Pakistan can partner with the UAE in countering jihadism (often referred to in public policy discourse with the euphemism of violent extremism). Pakistanis tend to lump all Gulf Arab states together. But the ongoing tensions within the GCC have exposed fundamental differences in how the Emirates, Qataris, and Saudis view the future of the region and which actors should be supported. Unlike Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE is not a Salafi state.

Its official school of fiqh is Maliki. And it is supporting mainstream traditionalist ulema like Shaykh Habib Ali Al-Jifri and Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah who are confronting the jihadist ideology using Islamic studies.

Presently, the counter-extremism discourse in Pakistan has centered around condemnations of suicide bombing. But the broader ideas that provide an enabling environment for jihadist groups — including the dehumanisation of non-Muslims and the practice of takfir (excommunication) — also need to be countered with Islamically-grounded notions of citizenship, religious freedom, and tolerance.

Despite the gains from Operation Zarb-i-Azb, the challenge from jihadist networks inside Pakistan will be generational. And while the army has been successful in clearing anti-state jihadists from most of the tribal areas, the Pakistani state has been negligent, if not conflicted, in taking on the ideas that enable a young Muslim man to kill dozens of strangers in a bazaar or mosque. The UAE has taken a lead in countering the jihadist ideology and can help add depth to Pakistan’s counter-extremism strategy.

The tumult in the Gulf will go on for years as countries like Saudi Arabia go through difficult economic and political transitions. And the scourge of jihadism will be a generational challenge. In the 1980s, in the backdrop of another Persian Gulf cold war and jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan was fundamentally changed with the empowerment of sectarian extremists, the Kalashnikov culture and the drug trade.

Pakistan faces similar risks today. But one hopes that the leadership has learned from the mistakes of the past. The time for being a frontline state in someone else’s war has come to an end. What is needed is dexterous balancing to ensure that Pakistan remains engaged with the Persian Gulf, but is protected from the flames emerging from its tumult.

The writer is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy, and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, a political risk advisory company.
He tweets @arifcrafiq

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017