Islamabad’s Catch-22 moment

Sanctions on Qatar risk opening a Pandora's Box in the Middle East that Pakistan should avoid

Islamabad’s Catch-22 moment
As if South Asia’s own conflicts were not enough, now the regional states will have to deal with a brewing storm in the Middle East, a region with which some countries are connected ideologically and others diplomatically. Although Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar for ten months in 2014, this time around Riyadh seems more intent to fight a decisive battle as the size of its partners is bigger and harder measures have been taken to pinch Doha.

The countries that have joined Saudi Arabia in imposing an economic sanction on Qatar include the UAE, Bahrain, the eastern government of Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Mauritania and the Maldives. Their demand is for Qatar to stifle its various media channels like Al Jazeera, Al-Arabi, Al Jadid and Middle East Eye, stop support to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, not assist ISIS and al Qaeda that it is accused of supporting, and break all ties with Iran except for economic relations. Since the conflict erupted soon after President Donald Trump’s departure from Riyadh, many believe that Washington is not bi-partisan in this matter despite appearing to be an observer. Hence, the position that America takes will have a bearing on whichever way this concludes.
As far as Qatar is concerned, both India and Pakistan have military personnel stationed in Doha engaged in training. In 2008-2009, India had even signed a deal with Qatar that was not made public but which some believe was a defense agreement

The power struggle

What is for sure is that the tension is likely to be prolonged since the immediate conflict is a microcosm of a larger power struggle in the region—between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Israel and Iran. Surrendering to a Saudi ultimatum conveyed through Kuwait would be tantamount to Qatar conceding to Saudi Arabia’s role as a more powerful player which is something that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani would not like to accept that easily. After all, Doha cautiously and gradually built its own clout in the Middle East. In many ways, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani did it smarter than Riyadh by capturing the popular narrative in the Arab and Muslim world through his media machine that grew to challenge western news outlets such as CNN and BBC. The Saudis have issues with reporting on the war in Yemen in which it accuses Al Jazeera of presenting the Houthis favourably. The Qatari-controlled channels are disliked because they internationalized the war in Yemen as they did with other regional conflicts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Experts believe that the Qatari media was an effective tool in not only popularizing Qatar but connecting Sheikh Al Thani with major regional players, especially those involved in the conflict like the Islamists with whom Doha had good links. It was their perspective that the BBC, CNN or other news channels wouldn’t allow that Al Jazeera brought to its audience which provided an alternative opinion in the world, especially Muslim countries that weren’t satisfied with how Western media houses reported incidents and events.

Consequently, Qatar emerged as a key power centre, particularly after the role it played in negotiating a settlement between Israel and Lebanon after the latter’s war in 2006. It had sufficient links with Iranian-supported Hezbollah to host the Doha talks and subsequent agreement. In the case of South Asia, Qatar seems to have played a role in facilitating the Taliban as well and encourage them in a dialogue with the US and other parties. Capturing the narrative certainly helped obviate the reality that Doha is as Wahhabi as Saudi Arabia. In fact, the ruling family competes with Saudi Arabia in maintaining ideological clout in the Muslim world that it does through financing mosques and madrassas in Muslim countries.  According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior report for 2013-2014 regarding madrassas receiving foreign money, 21 out of a total of 39 were funded from Qatar, seven from Dubai, three from Saudi Arabia, one from Bahrain and one from Hong Kong. Interestingly, the report did not mention numerous mosques that were financed from Saudi Arabia and play the same role as madrassas.

But this is not about good publicity versus bad. The uncontrolled presentation of the Yemen war hurts Saudi Arabia which is absorbed in its struggle to win a decisive victory against the Houthi rebels that are supposedly Iranian proxies and have gained control over politics and state institutions in Yemen since the initial start of a civil war in 2004. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not want Qatar to support a process in which Iran and its proxies would benefit and manage an upper hand to the detriment of Sunnis as had happened in Iraq. The orthodox Wahhabi clergy in Saudi Arabia and even the ruling family believes that it must avenge the death of Sunnis who died in Iraq. This is compounded with the fear of Iran invading Saudi Arabia through its proxies and taking over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to which access is restricted to Iranians whenever bilateral relations become poor. Moreover, there is a larger concern of the Saudis and the US regarding Yemeni Houthis who could use their country’s location at the mouth of the Suez Canal to threaten international traffic through it.

From a domestic political perspective, it is the commitment to fight Iran that has even kept the orthodox Saudi clergy focused enough to forgive the space that Saudi liberals seem to enjoy at the moment or the lavish treatment given to Donald Trump on his arrival in the Kingdom. Indeed, more than anyone it is the US that could solve the current impasse by bringing the parties to the negotiating table, or, as the Middle East expert and Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore James Dorsey believes, could expand the conflict further. The second possibility may occur due to Washington adding pressure on Qatar to narrow the focus of its relations with Iran which was identified as one of the key enemies that the coalition of 41-nations was meant to fight.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani

South Asia’s worry

But any prolongation of tension is worrying for South Asia due to its bond with the Middle East. There are hundreds and thousands of South Asian workers spread around the region. Although the situation has not spun out of control yet, it is important for South Asian states to maintain neutrality. Thus far, the conflict is manageable as Saudi Arabia and its allies have not tried to cut Qatar’s earnings in the form of oil and gas exports. The UAE imports about 40 percent of its gas from Qatar. The sanctions, thus far, have been aimed at restricting Doha’s food imports or hurting its shipping, airline and media. Qatar Airlines is the worst hit as it can no longer fly over the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and has to take a longer route over Iran and Turkey. In a very authoritarian fashion, the UAE has declared any support for Qatar on social media as punishable. While this will affect large tracts of the Shia population in the UAE, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East, there will surely be an implication for South Asians living in these parts of the world. For their governments the safest option is to not become a party and hope that the Middle Eastern players do not impose restrictions to withdraw manpower from one or the other. As far as Qatar is concerned, both India and Pakistan have military personnel stationed in Doha engaged in training. In 2008-2009, India had even signed a deal with Qatar that was not made public but which some believe was a defense agreement. At that time, who could have thought of a real threat to Qatar. Also, India has cooperation with Saudi Arabia denoted by the fact that Riyadh worked with it to hand over a crucial terrorist in 2012 and Narendra Modi visited the Kingdom in 2016. However, the fact that India is not an Islamic state secures it from the kind of pressures that Pakistan faces.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s Foreign Office’s wise move to maintain its neutrality on the issue, this is certainly Islamabad’s Catch-22 moment. With a recently retired army chief heading a Saudi-dominated military coalition primarily meant to fight Iran and militant groups connected with it, any further escalation of tension would mean additional pressure domestically. The Pakistani government’s political opponents will use any further escalation of tension in the Middle East against its own government as if anyone in power in Islamabad would have opted differently. Pakistan has to tread a fine line between Iran with which it has had a lacklustre relationship since 1979, and the Sunni Arab States of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf with whom it has been tied in a historic bond since after 1947. In fact, every new government in Islamabad adds a new personal angle to the relationship whether it is civil or military. However, Saudi Arabia and its allies do not capture the popular narrative in Pakistan or South Asia in general. It is noteworthy that during the current conflict many of the Saudi proxies in South Asia have chosen to remain strategically silent mainly because the Riyadh-Washington connection is too much in everyone’s face. Interestingly, Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi of the Ahle Sunnat wal Jammat, who is being actively repainted as Santa Claus by a certain segment of Pakistan’s media, was the only one to have pointed out Iran as the culprit.

With a recently retired army chief heading a Saudi-dominated military coalition primarily meant to fight Iran and militant groups connected with it, any further escalation of tension would mean additional pressure domestically

Notwithstanding the fact that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies share an ideological outlook, it is the latter that does not enjoy a good reputation in Pakistan. Successive governments in Pakistan have never told the common man the real story about their strategic bond with Riyadh and their responsibility in the relationship which is one of the reasons why the common perception of the Kingdom is that of a country exporting radicalism and terrorism to Pakistan and South Asia. In this respect, Riyadh accusing Qatar of supporting terror groups appears to be a matter of the pot calling the kettle black. Historically, it was Saudi Arabia that salvaged Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and gave it shelter to grow and nurture their ideology in the Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s when they were being cleansed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, post the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a political force in Egypt that won the 2012 elections and came to power only to be forcibly curbed by a military authoritarian government supported by the US. In the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, the Hezbollah are seen as the only pressure on Israel.

The fact of the matter is that despite the Shia-Sunni ideological divide, the Muslim world appears in two colours to the average South Asian. The Israeli atrocities on the Palestinian front and the turning of occupied territories in, what historian Ilan Pappé describes as, the biggest prison on earth, makes Iran and its proxies relevant. However, the use of non-state militants is not a formula that most would like to apply in South Asia itself where people have suffered and societies have been divided due to this phenomenon. One of the reasons that Saudi Arabia has a bad image in Asia is due to its association with Wahhabi jihadism that was nurtured especially after 1979 in Afghanistan and other places. Even now, it has developed independent links with the Taliban that may be used with or without Pakistan’s support in case the conflict with Iran escalates. As mentioned earlier, what adds to the distaste is the American flavour. The fact is that many Pakistanis may queue up for an American visa but geopolitically it is not a popular brand.

One now hopes for a miracle to resolve the tension that, if prolonged, would result in a sacrifice of many innocent South Asians at the altar of Middle Eastern egos. The Saudis will try to put greater pressure on Qatar in the short term or could also try to bring about an internal change in Qatar. What is for sure is that any further lengthening of tension or any eruption into active conflict will be monstrous for both the Middle East and South Asia. The Arab world is already faced with a meltdown due to a sectarian divide which South Asia can ill afford. This Pandora’s box had better remain shut.

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is author of Military Inc and a research associate at the SOAS University of London South Asia Institute. She can be reached at