Regional

Where do we stand?

Jul 20, 2017
Pakistan has been walking a tightrope in trying to deal with the various crises engulfing the Middle East. Traditionally close to Saudi Arabia but also seeking better relations with neighbouring Iran, Pakistan has taken an apparently neutral position on the conflicts that involve one way or another the two countries, including what’s going on in Yemen. Similarly, the Pakistani government has refrained from taking a side in the dispute between Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries, restricting itself only to offering mediation services. The secret visit of Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani to Islamabad on Tuesday showed that Pakistan is still refraining from taking an outright position. 
 
In his talk with the Qatari foreign minister, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in May, reiterated that we were looking to help the various countries reach a diplomatic solution. Qatar, in turn, accepted Pakistan’s offers of help. But Pakistan may find it difficult to present itself as an entirely uncontroversial broker. The reason Qatar is facing a blockade right now is its closeness to Iran and there is an obvious lack of trust between Iran and Pakistan. Part of that are the border problems between the two countries, with Iran claiming that militants from our side cross over into Iran to carry out attacks. Not very long ago Iran threatened to send troops across the border to chase after suspected militants. But Iran’s main complaint is that we are too firmly on Saudi Arabia’s side to be fully trusted. This complaint carries some weight, especially since former army chief Raheel Sharif is now in Riyadh ‘heading’ or not heading the Islamic military alliance – which is seen as an anti-Iran force.
 
Our being so opaque about the decision to allow Raheel Sharif to take up the position hasn’t helped matters much. Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz has now told the Senate that Raheel Sharif is not heading any army in Saudi Arabia. This is technically true since the army exists only on paper but is nonetheless disingenuous since the Saudis are actively trying to recruit allies to form a military coalition. Aziz was unable to answer why Sharif was allowed to go to Saudi Arabia and thus give the impression that we are taking sides in a conflict about which parliament had decided on neutrality. 
 
Aziz has also told the Senate that the terms of reference under which Raheel Sharif is serving in Saudi Arabia have not yet been agreed upon. Strangely, at the same time he says that the former chief will follow policies in with our own foreign policy objectives, as laid down by parliament. How he could give such an assurance when the terms of reference have not even been laid down was not explained. All of this gives the impression that the Pakistani state either cannot control the former general or approves of his joining the Saudis. In either case, it puts us in a difficult diplomatic position, especially when we want to maintain our relations with Qatar and work with Iran to import natural gas. The government needs to decide where it stands.
 
The News, July 20, 2017

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