MANY Pakistanis would have been surprised to hear the Iraqi ambassador last week praising Pakistan’s role in fighting the militant Islamic State group in Iraq. The news that Pakistan provided intelligence, military medical assistance and ammunition to Iraq points to our increasingly complex, and perpetually non-transparent, entanglements in the Middle East. The ambassador also praised Pakistan’s neutrality in the Middle East — a position we espouse, but which seems increasingly precarious.
The diplomatic stand-off between the Gulf states which seems to be settling into a ‘long estrangement’ will especially challenge Pakistan’s position of neutrality. We have close ties with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia: we receive LNG from one, oil from the other, and send our migrant labour to both.
Our prime minister banked on the support of the Al Thanis during Panamagate, while our military is seen as forging ever closer links with the Saudis via former army chief Raheel Sharif in his new role as the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism alliance.
Pakistan must maintain good relations with all the countries involved in the Gulf dispute, yet a prolonged stand-off will only increase pressure to pick sides. Our ability to resist such pressure is doubtful; while parliament in 2015 voted against involvement in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, there were reports that Pakistani security forces were involved at the behest of Saudi Arabia in quelling Shia uprisings in Bahrain in 2011.
It is unlikely our neutrality will survive strong-arm tactics.
Meanwhile, our decision sometime ago to expel teachers working at schools in Pakistan that were allegedly linked to a major Turkish opposition figure, Fethullah Gulen, at the request of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan shows that we are not immune to kowtowing, no matter what the implications for civil society or human rights may be.
It is unlikely that Pakistani neutrality can survive the strong-arm tactics that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have deployed against Qatar at great diplomatic and strategic expense. It is obvious that some of the charges being levelled against Qatar could as easily be directed against Pakistan in case we were to fall out of favour with the kingdom — Qatar’s ties with Iran; sponsorship of groups that Saudi Arabia perceives to be terrorists; defence agreements with Turkey; patience for a vocal media have been targeted.
Given the show of independence with Pakistan’s parliamentary vote on Yemen and our media’s increasing willingness to criticise Saudi policies and the alleged sponsorship of violent extremist groups, it is not inconceivable for Pakistan and its civilian institutions to face similar pressure as Qatar in the future as Saudi Arabia further consolidates its position or demands fealty in the context of regional stand-offs.
Tangentially, the Saudi and Emirati attitude towards Qatar also complicates Pakistan’s relationship with the idea of sovereignty. We have long championed ours, and decry any attempt to undermine it, particularly in the form of US drone strikes or international interference in our affairs.
But the hypocrisy of our attitude towards sovereignty is most often evoked in the context of Afghanistan, where critics have long pointed out that Pakistan can be accused of meddling in Kabul’s affairs at the expense of Afghan sovereignty.
Our failure to strongly condemn Riyadh’s demands with regard to Doha point to another scenario in which we have demonstrated a pick-and-choose attitude towards national sovereignty.
Pakistan has long believed that it can navigate its way through Middle Eastern conflict scenarios by playing a mediation role. But the Saudi tack does not leave much room for mediation; with its coalition of the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and its aggressive list of demands, Riyadh seems to have adopted an ‘are you with us or against us’ approach (doesn’t that sound familiar? Remember how that worked out for Pakistan vis-à-vis another ally and benefactor?)
If news reports are to be believed, Pakistan has already been asked by the kingdom to pick sides despite our protestations at neutrality.
Unfortunately, neutrality is a privilege for those with independent resources, independent foreign policies, and a clear set of national priorities against which to benchmark any decision about bilateral and regional relationships. We are indebted and beholden to the key players in this dispute, leaving us with few options other than being co-opted or coerced.
The growing precariousness of our fiscal position also means that we will continue to see the Gulf states as benefactors, not to be crossed on points of principle. Given the current political dynamics within our country, pressure from Gulf allies to come on side could even influence the fractious civilian-military balance within Pakistan, exacerbating instability. In truth, Pakistan’s position is increasingly one of weakness rather than neutrality.
The writer is a freelance journalist.