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Pakistan’s Neutral Stance on Qatar

Written right after the Qatar embargo

Published Global Affairs Jul 2017

Qatar recently found itself in hot water based on comments attributed to its leadership – comments that had been categorized as fake news. As a pretext it served its purpose. The oil-gas rich nation has been placed in a diplomatic stranglehold though it renounced charges of funding terrorism and being a destabilizing influence the region. These may be pressure tactics meant to put Qatar in its place, cut it down to size, make it tow the GCC line whatever that might be at the moment. The definition of terror in this case is open to interpretation. Qatar fights ISIL alongside coalition partners. But its support for proscribed groups like Muslim Brotherhood for instance and relationship with Tehran keeps it in the doghouse.

Washington remains ambivalent. The American President endorsed the move. The Secretary of State cautioned against boycotts. But GCC nations seem clear-sighted. The small state houses US CENTCOM, thousands of American troops and some 2.7 million expats. In UAE it’s a country that can no longer be named without serious repercussions. Doha faces diplomatic isolation from Gulf nations including KSA, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Maldives. Turkey and Iran however stand by the alliance rushing to the rescue with food and promises of troop deployments. Kuwait is already in the ring trying to defuse the situation.

And Pakistan to date has refused to join the hunting party choosing to stay on the fringes – as it carries out its business as usual. And there it should remain. Pakistan recently took a principled stance on Yemen and risked KSA and UAE’s ire. Its dreams of taking on the mantle of a mediator in the Qatar spate have yet to be realized.

As with any crisis there will be winners and losers. Indian Airlines now must fly over Pakistan and Iran and reportedly incur greater cost. Omar Air on the other hand can slip in to fill the void left by Qatar Airways now barred from using key airspaces. Tehran can hope to exchange food, water, trade routes for a loyalty pledge from Doha in the future. Al-Jazeera remains in danger of being shuttered or muzzled to the delight of vested interests. And the 2022 World Cup venue can be for grabs. Also, new players will emerge to take advantage of the vacancy left by confused Western policy makers.
Such rifts, while not new expose major fault-lines within the Gulf region. Qatar was a part of IMAFT – Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism. And yet it stands accused of being a supporter of terrorism. To many the concept of a unified front against terrorism may seem to be at odds with regional politics and unspoken agendas. It is also telling that collective threats like ISIS cannot unify the Middle Eastern region so great is the divide. Or that the Saudi-led war against terror would start in its own backyard.

Islamabad’s decision to shun what are essentially sophisticated power grabs makes sense in that context. Though the act appears to have given some nations ideas and one can almost see the wheels turning as they wonder - can we have a version of this embargo in South Asia? And how far can nuclear nations be pushed before someone blinks are some of the questions in their mind. Especially after having seen the impact of diplomatic isolation – and how Qatar’s money and influence and proximity to CENTCOM couldn’t save it from being put in its place.

The negotiating table is where the second act may play out, provided Kuwait succeeds in its mission. But should the standoff intensify, its echoes are bound to be felt along the shores of the Arabian Sea and beyond. Pakistan needs to anticipate the next few moves in this global chessboard, because the bizarre looking new world order now threatens to upend old alliances. It is best to be prepared.


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