On June 5, a crisis at the diplomatic level suddenly surfaced in the Middle East (ME) when some countries severed their bilateral diplomatic, trade and travel relations with Qatar. The most prominent of these countries were Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The justification for boycotting Qatar has been sought in two main allegations. First, Qatar is incriminated in terrorist financing in the ME. Second, Qatar is clandestinely supporting Iran. Though Qatar has denied these allegations, there are two points to ponder over. First, the anti-Qatar stance of these countries headed by Saudi Arab has appeared immediately after the recently held US-Arab Islamic Summit in Riyadh. Second, there is suddenness in alleging and ostracising Qatar in the ME.
Qatar is already known for its certain peculiarities – not eccentricities – making it look different from the rest in the ME. Three of such uniqueness are conspicuous. First, since November 2006 when Qatar launched a 24-hour Al-Jazeera English news channel – which was an improved version of Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel launched in November 1996 – a wave of awareness has been sweeping across the ME. Though the TV channel vehemently supported the rise of the Arab Spring from Tunisia in late 2010, some people think that the wave of awareness actually prompted the Arab Spring. Second, Qatar has offered space to the Taliban of Afghanistan to open their office in Doha in order to initiate a dialogue process with the US. This role is considered bigger than the size of Qatar. Third, Qatar offers to establish a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran to ebb the tide of mistrust and trepidation. Taken together, these three features give the impression that Qatar has been rising as an alternative (Sunni) Arab centre in the ME.
These three features have not matured instantly but these were in practice for several years and known to Saudi Arabia even before the summit. Second, no new incident has taken place provoking any country to point an accusing finger at Qatar. These are two reasons which are a testament to the fact that the anti-Qatar feeling predates the summit. However, there are two understandable main charges against Qatar. First, Qatar has defied the dictates of the summit and refrained from posing a necessary anti-Iran posture in the region. That is, Qatar remained disloyal to the verdict of the summit by not forsaking its relations with Iran. Second, Qatar has failed to deflate the balloon of its oversizing to stop offering an alternative (Sunni) Arab centre in the ME. That is, Qatar is required to submit to the pecking order expressed through the summit.
In this development, there is a lesson for Pakistan to learn. That is, a disagreement with the dictates of the summit is despised and means exclusion, though Pakistan has already learnt this lesson partly after being denied an opportunity to address the summit. Nevertheless, the anti-Qatar stance of Arab countries headed by Saudi Arabia may be counted not only as an attempt to chastise Qatar but also as an attempt to send a message to those faltering Muslim countries such as Pakistan to rally around.
The worrying aspect of the crisis is that sanctions have been imposed on Qatar without entering into any prior negotiations with it. That is, Qatar was alleged but not heard. This aspect also indicates that there is prevailing a blatant penchant for authoritarianism at the decision-making level in the ME. By inference, Pakistan should be ready for a situation in which an abrupt war is launched against, say, Iran without leaving any room for prior negotiations. Pakistan’s diplomatic skills to negotiate and avoid a crisis are of no use, and perhaps not required, in the ME.
In principle, with imposing sanctions on Qatar, the Arab huddle created by the summit has been disrupted. Qatar seems to have refused to follow the dictates of the summit and this may be because of two reasons. First, the summit revealed that the members assembled at the summit had not been taken into confidence before the summit and this might be because of authoritarianism leaving no space for prior consultation or deliberation. Second, the summit laid it open that there was an intense yearning for mounting a rigid wall between the Sunni states and the Shia states of the ME. In this regard, the apprehension nursed by many countries including Pakistan, and may be Qatar, is that once it happens, it will last for decades.
There is another dimension to look at the crisis. Punishing Qatar means punishing Iran. That is, Qatar has been punished for the same reasons Iran was condemned at the summit. Nevertheless, it seems that the activities of Al-Jazeera English news channel are detested in certain Arab countries where monarchies are entrenched and where monarchies are fearful of a regime change from inside. This also means that the summit was more than being anti-Iran or anti-terrorism. It was to protect the intra-state power status quo. To all the ME countries, the threat bigger than Iran is the wave of awareness embodied in the Arab Spring which is still extant in the ME transcending one political boundary or the other and challenging the legitimacy of one monarchy after the other.
With the deepening of the ME crisis, Pakistan is confronted with two main challenges. First, how to balance Pakistan’s commitment to protecting Harmain Sharifain (in Saudi Arabia) with defending borders of Saudi Arabia. Second, how to balance Pakistan’s political association (couched in its yearning for Muslim Ummah) with economic association (established through exporting its work force to the ME) with the Arab countries. Nevertheless, the broader challenge to Pakistan is that how to strike a balance between its relations with Saudi Arabia and those with Iran.
Retrospectively, the 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance was a mere catch, as it compelled mostly Sunni states to join it. Pakistan could not resist temptation and necessity to join the alliance. Temptation because Pakistan always crave for a bigger role in the Muslim world. Necessity because Pakistan is tangled in the war on terror imposing isolation on it. Both temptation and necessity have made Pakistan a gratuitous victim to the deepening ME crisis. Retrospectively, the summit did two tasks. First, the summit offered a sense of legitimacy to its protagonists and this legitimacy has become the bane of Qatar. Second, the summit not only reinforced the resolve of the military alliance but also offered it an agenda and this agenda has made Qatar its first victim.
The ME crisis is not over yet and more developments are still to appear with all abruptness and absoluteness specific to the region. It is yet to be seen if Pakistan can cope with the ME duo: abruptness and absoluteness.