Tuesday October 03, 2023

Not taking sides in the Middle East

June 16, 2017

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is preoccupied with the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of whom Pakistan has very cordial relations with. It is a conflict in which it is problematic for us to take sides. Sharif sought the opinion of accompanying journalists during his journey to Astana and back home about how to wriggle out of the ‘with us (Saudis) or with them (Qataris)’ dilemma.

He seemed to have made up his mind to avoid taking sides in what is essentially an Arab conflict. But the issue was how not to annoy the demanding Saudis without cutting off with the Qataris who have become major LNG suppliers to Pakistan on which essentially depends an end to loadshedding. The exact details of Prime Minister Sharif’s meeting with the Saudi king have not been made public; they could involve a slashing down of financial assistance, and a reduction in Pakistani labour and the quota of pilgrims. However, unnamed official sources have tried to convey that Pakistan would like to see an early solution to the conflict for the sake of unity among the majority-Muslim nations without becoming party to what is seen as a rather absurd conflict.

So far, Pakistan has not severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, as demanded by the Saudis, like the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Mauritania, the Maldives, the pro-UAE/Saudi Libyan government, Djibouti and Mauritius have done. Nor has it scaled down diplomatic relations with Qatar, the way Jordan, Chad, Senegal, Niger, and Cameron have done by recalling their ambassadors from Doha. Other nations that have followed the snapping of diplomatic ties with Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE have done so under coercion from Riyadh. Like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan, Pakistan too has called for dialogue.

Most likely, Pakistan has somehow withstood the Saudi pressure (not without palpable consequences) and is inclined to support Kuwait’s mediation, even though General (r) Raheel Sharif paradoxically continues to head the Saudi-led ‘Islamic Army’ against Iran, Yemen and now Qatar. While rightly making the demand that the prime minister should take parliament into confidence about his government’s policy over the issue, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly was quite ungenerous in asking the government to explain as to how it had issued an NoC to the former COAS to head the Saudi-formed ‘Islamic Army’; the leader of the opposition knew well it was a matter beyond civilian jurisdiction.

The Saudi/UAE-Qatari conflict is essentially rooted in who is to lead an ultra-conservative Sunni alliance in facing the threat from defiant and militant political Islam while pursuing disparate variants of Wahabiism and Salafism. The alliance formed in Riyadh last month, prompted by President Trump principally against Iran, has broken down. And President Trump was quick to own the Saudi decision to castigate Qatar for financing and supporting terrorism while simultaneously keeping the largest US military base in the country. Suspecting softness in the Qatari attitude towards Iran – using an alleged statement of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani which has since been denied as fake news – the Saudis have taken an extreme measure to establish ultra-Sunni conservatism and exclusive regional hegemony across the Middle East and North Africa.

The irony is that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar follow variant strands of Wahabiism while promoting similar authoritarian, anti-democratic and conservative values. Even Abu Dhabi/UAE and Saudi Arabia differ on the kind of Islam they want to impose. The Emirate of Dubai and Oman keep cordial relations with Iran, despite sectarian sifferences with the country. Qatar backs the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimeen and radical Hamas. This has annoyed the Egyptians who have kept the Gaza Strip, dominated by Hamas, under siege (in conjunction with Israel). The major cause of friction is not only Iran, but also the sectarian theatres of fratricidal warfare in Syria and Libya where the Saudis and Emirates are desperate to extend their areas of influence.

Faced with the imminent threat of takeover by the Saudi Ikhwans and the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh, the Saudis are promoting yet another variant of Wahabiism that is represented by Sheikh Al-Madkhali, who was dean at the Islamic University of Medina. Madkhalism preaches loyalty to the House of Saud as defenders of Islam and the guardians of the Harimain Sharifain – Makkah and Medina. Both the Saudis and the Qataris are paving the way for violent extremist ideologies. It is no coincidence that the ideological primers being taught in the camps of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra mostly consist of the teachings of Ibne Taymiyyah and Abd al-Wahab from Najd as in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. 

Ever since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar are engaged in a bloody war to gain control of the most important and resourceful country of North Africa. The Saudis, Egyptians and Emirates are backing their respective proxies. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates back General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, who is supported by the followers of Madkhalism to fight the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood. The Madkhalists control Benghazi and some parts of eastern Libya and with General Haftar they control the Government of National Accord. The Qataris are known to be backing the Bengazi Defense Brigade. Thanks to the infighting between the Saudis, Emirates, Egypt, on the one hand, and the Qataris, on the other, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Ansar Sharia and the Islamic State are gaining ground in Libya.

Even though Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Turkey have been supporting various terrorist organisations to uproot the Assad government in Syria and have been instrumental in the emergence of the IS, they have their own conflicting interests as well. The Qataris have reportedly kept ‘secret relations’ with the Syrian regime while backing Al-Nusra in the hope to create an alternative pipeline route from the Gulf to Europe, and also find some space in Syria. The Saudis are ready to go to any length to build a countervailing force in Syria and Yemen to push back the expanding Iranian influence from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to Yemen while also letting the IS and Al-Qaeda expand their influence due to the void created by the fall of Saddam, the crisis in Syria and Shia-Sunni and ethnic divides. The reason behind Turkey’s military support to Qatar is that it accuses the UAE of funding the failed coup against Erdogan and the Saudi-Emirates opposition to political Islam and suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (still supported by Turkey and Qatar).

The future of Qatar now depends on US-Saudi-UAE terms. And Qatar will have to concede to some of the demands of the Saudis, Emirates and, above all, the US. Qatar had provided the largest military base to the US in order to pre-empt an invasion from its Arab neighbours. The feuds among these Arab nations are grave and unprincipled, and Pakistan must keep out of the fires of such sectarian and clannish disputes. After our parliament’s refusal to side with Saudi Arabia against Yemen, the prime minister must again immediately seek guidance from the collective wisdom of the sovereign representative institution to keep out of the brewing conflicts in the Middle East.


The writer is a senior journalist. Email:

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA