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.
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.
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).
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.
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 totalled around $20 million, 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 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.
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
Tucked away in a corner of the old PECHS Block 6 lies a remnant of Karachi’s more recent history.
Long before General Ziaul Haq mandated the study of Arabic in state schools, a private language school, the Society for the Promotion of Arabic (SPA), was busy preparing Saudi-bound Pakistanis in the rudiments of the sacred tongue.
For years, Arabic teachers, often themselves students studying at Karachi University, from the Middle East, would run intensive courses for skilled workers, such as General Raheel Sharif, holding lucrative job offers in the Gulf states.
The SPA, along with the Gulshan-i-Iqbal offices of the original 1940s-era World Muslim Congress (Motamar Al-Alam Al-Islami) are small reminders of the longstanding links between the oldest Islamic republic and one of the newest.
A much more visible presence is the estimated nine million Pakistanis who have worked in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the early 1970s.
Their numbers today are surging and the International Labour Organisation thinks there were as many as a million migrant workers in the GCC, sending back nearly 19 billion dollars in remittances.
There’s little doubt that the Pak-Saudi encounter is the original “all weather” relationship. But this relationship is now coming under strain.
Indeed, we may well be at a moment of what Barack Obama termed a ‘pivot’ — a subtle, but strategic reassessment of foreign policy.
The overarching reason for reassessment is the change in Saudi Arabia’s top leadership and in particular the elevation of the 32-year-old defence minister Mohammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is called) as crown prince.
Salman is sometimes portrayed as the great moderniser and has made headlines with eye-catching policies to diversify the economy, sell off state-owned assets and open up Saudi society to outside influences.
A declared fan of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, he seeks fame and has been the subject of flattering profiles in leading English language publications.
“I’ve met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. He’s a revolutionary,” gushed one writer in The Daily Telegraph only last month.
In January 2016, The Economist published the transcript of no less than a five-hour interview. To some he is indeed the rock-star leader.
But the Saudi Churchillian has a wider agenda.
For the past two generations, the ibn Saud family rulers have been content to see their nation prosper via the twin exports of petroleum and the radical Islamic ideology that has come to be known as Wahhabism.
But for Salman that isn’t enough. He is setting about establishing Saudi Arabia as the dominant military power in a face-off with Iran — and playing off the Western powers in the process, just as the dynasty’s founder, the first Saudi king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, did.
So much for the macro-picture, more precise reasons for a foreign policy pivot lie in Salman’s frighteningly patchy record of policy interventions.
Take his signature defence policy.
Salman is said to be the architect of the campaign against Yemen (though he denies this).
Except that what was promised as a short, surgical war isn’t quite going to plan.
Moreover, two years of relentless aerial bombardment has caused large-scale civilian death and a public health emergency unseen in modern times, according to the World Health Organisation.
Then there’s the supposed diplomatic coup with the United States.
Salman is credited in part with persuading the Trump administration that Saudi Arabia should be the incoming president’s first overseas visit, which it was.
But in so doing, he has simultaneously helped reverse the thawing of US relations with Iran, and opened up a potential fissure in the nuclear deal.
Salman is also the principal figure in the creation of the 41-member “anti-terror” Islamic Military Alliance.
This is an alliance without Iran, which begs the question of who exactly the alliance is against. Salman didn’t mince his words in his Economist interview.
Asked if he considers Iran to be his biggest enemy, he replied: “We hope not.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Then there’s the hiring of Gen Sharif as the alliance’s commander-in-chief.
If this alliance succeeds in eliminating extremism, then that will surely go down in the annals of minor miracles. Ironically, its leader Saudi Arabia has arguably done more than any state to propagate a form of Islamic practice that has intolerance at its core.
The kingdom’s brand of religion has been promoted actively over 30 years.
We’re not talking about a few harmless pamphlets, scholarships to study at Madinah or the occasional visiting imam.
We are talking about a seemingly endless line of funds that donors — both public and private — used to bankroll one single ideology through building mosques, funding schools, running conferences and more.
This is the same ideology that says, using violent and non-violent means, that other forms of Islam are bankrupt.
And now we have the latest crisis: a blockade against Qatar on the grounds of, wait for it, Doha’s support for extremism. It’s the kind of scenario worthy of the best Monty Python sketches.
That is the reality now confronting Pakistan’s (and the world’s) foreign affairs establishment. Alongside the leaders of the US, China and Russia, the world has a new muscular actor in the (soon to be) Saudi monarch.
The Qatar crisis will not be the last. MBS is working to a plan, and has an agenda.
New realities demand a different order of response, but before that let’s examine the response so far.
The reaction in Pakistan, along with Britain and the US, is understandably being shaped with an eye both to economic risks but also to economic opportunities.
In Pakistan’s case, half a million migrant workers are in Saudi Arabia, a significant increase on previous years (there are also 300,000 in the UAE).
The UK and the US meanwhile are the globe’s top two arms exporters to Saudi Arabia. Between 2010 and 2015 they sold around 10 billion dollars in weaponry.
Businesses from these and other countries are also looking to capture a slice of the impending Saudi state sell-offs.
But it is worth stopping for a moment and considering how the Qatar blockade may appear if self-interest wasn’t the overriding factor.
We have here a situation in which the leading power in one of the world’s richest trading blocs is telling one of its smallest members to sever or reduce its links to neighbours; to repatriate citizens; to extradite named individuals without judicial process; to shut down independent media; to pay unspecified costs; and to agree to a compliance regime probably unheard of in the history of contemporary international relations.
One of the few things in Qatar’s favour is the presence of the main US military base for its Middle East operations, Centcom, which happens to be in Qatar.
If the GCC states can persuade Donald Trump that its base is safer on their soil, then Qatar will lose one of the few cards it has on the table.
Were this happening in a different part of the world, to different countries, the key demands would be seen as an infringement of that most basic right of nations, which is to be able to make sovereign decisions.
It is as if South Asian Association for Regional cooperation (SAARC) ganged up on Bhutan; or if China told Pakistan to close down its independent media.
Given that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are members of the World Trade Organisation, the blockade may well be an infringement of WTO rules.
Pakistan (along many other nations) has offered to mediate, but Salman knows well that such offers will ring hollow for as long as these nations continue to believe that they need Saudi Arabia more than it needs them.
Perhaps what Islamabad and other capital cities should consider is a scenario in which the anti-Qatar coalition was allowed to further ratchet up the crisis.
What would happen, and what would be the consequences are fundamental in considering how to respond more effectively.
Pakistan and its democratic allies must know that there are risks associated with unequivocally backing Mohammad bin Salman against Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbour; or giving a blank cheque to an OIC military alliance in which Iran appears to be the enemy.
They would also be wise to remember how the world greeted the arrival of another great moderniser.
Bashar Al-Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, was positively celebrated as a great modernising force, if not a democratising one.
But world powers made the fatal mistake of confusing Assad’s youthfulness with the idea that he was ready to share power.
They mistook his willingness to do media interviews with an acceptance of the need for accountability — which of course he had no intention to do.
Modernising absolute monarchs will always be monarchs first and modernisers second. That is the lesson we must learn in dealing with Mohammed bin Salman.
We cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.
Ehsan Masood is editor of Research Fortnight, a UK-based research policy magazine
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017