Syed Qamar A Rizvi
GIVEN the growing complexities in a volatile ME which today represents the worst from of political mayhem, to handle such an appalling situation with political acumen— advocated by a policy of via media vis-à-vis Qatar and Saudi Arab— remains one of the gravest foreign policy challenges posed to Pakistan in present time. Last Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced that they are breaking up all ties with Qatar, alleging the country fuels extremism and terrorism. Yet, the current conflict also exposes the glaring paradoxes of Western diplomacy in the Middle East.
As for this Western-Arab standoff with Qatar, the apparently chartered reason is Qatar’s irresponsible—and today impractical—acceptance of terrorism, connection to Iran and promotion of destabilizing forces in the region. The new fissure in the Persian Gulf is in and of itself a big political turmoil — which is already being called by some political observers as the biggest diplomatic conundrum in the region since the Gulf War in 1991.
The western critics also argue, Qatar has now been scapegoated for funding Al-Qaeda and IS, something most have known for years, a question arises: does this mean that Saudi Arabia — another controversial political actor in the region and around the globe — is now off the hook. But an insight into the Mideast affairs indoctrinates that the consequences will ripple beyond the region’s internal politics and seriously imperil US military operations in the region. In Middle East, Qatar is core to the US CENTCOM , which manages all military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
The big breakup— between Doha and Washington on the one side, and Doha and its Sunni neighbors on the other— exposes the vexing dual role Qatar has long been playing for the US in its fight against radicalism in the Middle East. On one hand, the US takes part with a Qatar which is a large source of support and funding for groups it considers to be terrorist organizations, like Hamas, or adversaries, like the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand, Washington has also been allowing the Pentagon to operate bases in its territory and to serve as an intermediary between Washington and Islamist groups across the region. Is it not true that Qatar helped broker the deal with the Taliban that won the release of the imprisoned US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl?
That logically means the past US administrations have had been willing to work with Qatar out of a belief that the positives outweighed the clear negatives, including its unofficial support for militant activities in the region. And how paradoxically it is and it has been in the US’s interest for all the countries in the region to be on good enough terms to be able to join the US-led campaign against IS. That’s why the initial response by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was to call for calm and dialogue. “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” Tillerson said in Australia on last Monday. “If there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the [Gulf Cooperation Council] remain unified.”
As for Pakistan, nothing seems so much demanding than to rebalance its ME policy. For decades, Pakistan’s Middle East policy has been shaped by two competing legacies: religious thinking and the priorities dictated by the post-colonial order. But the rise of new power poles in the Middle East accompanied by the international response to curbing terrorism— in the post IS (Daesh) phase, now precipitating the Qatar-Saudi rift—urges that Pakistan would have to give a second thought to its present Mideast policy notwithstanding the fact that Islamabad has already joined a Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance.
As to the West, Qatar’s role in facilitating an intra-Afghan reconciliation process and hosting a de-facto Taliban office makes it an increasingly important stakeholder for Pakistan to engage with smartly. On the commercial side, Islamabad hopes a deal to import Qatari liquefied natural gas for the next 15 years will supplement a separate, Russian-sponsored, $2 billion Karachi-Lahore gas pipeline that will feed Pakistan’s energy-starved industries. (The GCC is the club of Persian Gulf nations that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar are a part of.) In 2014, Pakistan turned down a request by its most allied ally in the Middle East to deploy troops against Bahrain and displayed the same reservations over its joining to Saudi Arabia’s fight in Yemen.
And yet, what may be an upping the ante situation for Islamabad to resolve is that in a divided Middle East where a quasi- Cold War déjà vu between US -Russia already persists, the situation could further be complicated by China’s direct entry— into this complex game changer matrix— after maintaining neutrality in most regional feuds, is compelled into picking sides in the conflict, especially when Washington allies with Riyadh. While Islamabad’s position is already baffled because of its joining the Saudi –led Islamic Military Alliance , a political-cum-diplomatic harmony in Islamabad- Tehran- Istanbul could significantly and pragmatically increase Pakistan’s diplomatic leverage in this strategically vital part of the world and capitalize on the strategic as well as commercial potential of three million Pakistanis working in the Gulf.
As transnational warfare and migrations largely affect the origin dynamics of the twentieth century nation-state boundaries across the Middle East and North Africa, Islamabad badly needs a revisiting in its partnerships within the region. For Islamabad, finding China and Saudi in opposing alliances would be an unprecedented foreign policy challenge. In this backdrop, to carve out a comprehensive diplomatic strategy— that could simultaneously protect Pakistan’s geo- strategic, geo-economic and geo political interests—seems a mammoth task ahead.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.