Between a rock and hard place

Not only the recent month has been grim for the Pakistani premier but the country’s international relations too are in a proverbial soup. The recent rift in the Middle East has bared the, erstwhile, latent faultlines. The Arab Monarchy has been criticised on the international horizon for coming out too strongly against the neighbouring Shiite states. Political scholars view the formation of the Islamic coalition as a Salafi venture. As Saudi Arab exerts pressure around the Muslim world for the boycott of its neighbouring state of Qatar, for alleged ties with terrorists, for Pakistan a choice between its two economic allies could as well symbolize a “severing” of its financial umbilical chord.

Saudi Arab has been a critical ally of Islamabad and the familial bond is more than skin deep. Whether it is the matter of a financial bailout or seeking help in resolving its crisis in leadership, the Saudi Monarchy has always played a significant role. Pakistani government relies on the $3 billion exports to Saudi Arab and the $4.52 billion in the way of 1.9 Million expatriates’ remittances. Therefore while Islamabad takes a neutral position on Yemen war, a Saudi request for the services of General Raheel Sharif, as head of the Islamic Coalition, could not be evaded.

Needless to say, the hawkish stance of the Saudi government against Iran caused another blow for Islamabad, where efforts have been afoot to improve neighbourly ties. Following Saudi Arab, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and, United Arab Emirates, UAE, have severed all diplomatic ties with Qatar for involvement in terrorist organisations. Qatar denies all allegations as baseless.

Qatar and Pakistan have enjoyed a good relationship over the years, which have been strengthened by close cooperation between the armed forces of both countries in trainings, cyber security and Defence production. In February 2016, Pakistan signed a landmark 15-year deal with Qatar for Liquefied Natural Gas, LNG, imports currently at $864m.Pakistan is also expected to assist Qatar for FIFA World Cup 2022.

To ease tensions, PM Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff, COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa recently went to Saudi Arab. If the visit will help quell the discord is unlikely but Pakistan will surely be able to make its position clear. It cannot afford to takes sides between Qatar and Saudi Arab. Saudi government banning the remittances or Qatar reconsidering its imports could cost Pakistan dearly.

The Saudi Arab’s flexing of the muscles was evident at the US-Arab Islamic Summit’s platform, by ignoring the human and financial cost of terrorism in Pakistan. At home, national and civil society leaders are alarmed and oppose siding in any conflict. The country is facing a rise in sectarian violence, which, some analysts fear may result from General Sharif’s role in the coalition army; a measure criticised by Iran as well. The PM must be walking on thin ice owing to his personal ties with both the Saudi King and the Emir of Qatar. Analysts suggest that no matter the pressure, Pakistan will only save face n the long run by remaining non-partisan. The rumours of recalling the General back from Riyadh, if true, would make for a sound independent position of this country.

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