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Pakistan Stays Neutral in Qatar-Saudi Dispute, But Mediation Role Unlikely

FILE - Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif looks out the window of his plane after attending a ceremony to inaugurate the M9 motorway between Karachi and Hyderabad, Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz met Monday with Saudi King Shah Salman bin Abdul Aziz in Jeddah, but no progress was reported in resolving the crisis.

Pakistan would like to help mediate an end to the rift between Persian Gulf allies because it has a lot to lose if the dispute drags on or turns violent, but analysts say it doesn’t have enough clout.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic relations with Qatar on June 5 and cut land, air and sea links, alleging it has ties to terrorists, a claim that the country strongly denies.

Increasingly isolated due to its own disputes with Afghanistan and India due to allegations that it shelters terrorist groups blamed for attacks in both countries, Pakistan has neither the economic power nor the diplomatic influence to pressure Qatar or Saudi Arabia to make the kind of concessions that likely will be needed to end the dispute.

No progress made

Prime Minister Nawaz met Monday with Saudi King Shah Salman bin Abdul Aziz in Jeddah, but no progress was reported in resolving the crisis.

“Pakistan can play a positive role, but that will be very limited because Pakistan has not political or economic leverage,” former Pakistani diplomat Javed Hafeez said. “Pakistan’s role must be neutral.

The United States and China are seen as more likely arbiters in what U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has called a “complex situation.”

A special adviser to Qatar's Foreign Minister Mutlaq al-Qahtani told the French news agency AFP that the crisis is not about terror financing, it is about “an orchestrated campaign ... to pressure [Qatar] to change its active, independent foreign policy.”

Arabia Foundation executive director Ali Shihabi told VOA's Victor Beattie he doesn't see the impasse ending soon.

The crisis has led some countries to immediately take sides, with Turkey offering to send up to 3,000 troops to a new base in Qatar and dispatching food to ease any shortfalls caused by the severed transportation links. A large pro-Qatar demonstration was held in Istanbul on Sunday.

Turkish President Erdogan denounced the isolation of Qatar as "inhumane and against Islamic values,” adding, "Qatar has shown the most decisive stance against the ISIS, and victimizing Qatar serves no purpose."

Choosing sides

Iran also has sided with Qatar.

Egypt is allied with Saudi Arabia; they share a common enemy in Akhwanul Muslimeen, a religious-political party with a strong base in Egypt that holds appeal for many Arabs.

Pakistan’s ties to the region are critical to the country and the standoff puts its loyalties right in the middle of the conflict.

Some 4.4 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and they send home $6 billion to $7 billion per year, providing a key source of foreign exchange. If the situation were to worsen, analysts believe any attempts to expel Pakistani workers or block remittances could have a major effect on Pakistan's economy.

Ties are particularly close with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Pakistan relies on them for energy needs, like fuel, and signed a landmark 15-year deal last year with Qatar to import liquefied natural gas.

Sharif also has benefited from support from both.

When Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew the Sharif government in a bloodless coup in December 2000, the Saudi royals brokered a deal in which they took in him and his family until November 2007.

The Saudi government also gave Sharif's government a grant of $1.5 billion in March 2014 to help meet debt-service obligations and undertake large development projects. At the time, Ishaq Dar, Pakistan's finance minister, called it "a gift" amid criticism from opposition parties.


Pakistan former general and defense analyst Gen. Talat Masood told VOA Urdu that such aid would make it hard for Pakistan to stay neutral now, and a former Pakistani general is heading a Saudi-led Sunni military coalition of over 40 nations.

Sharif also has relied heavily, though, on a letter from former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al Thani as part of his defense in an ongoing corruption investigation that could unseat him.

Sharif tried to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia early last year — with no apparent success — after Riyadh executed dissident Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on charges of terrorism, which was followed by the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Other Pakistani international interventions have been less diplomatic. Shia Muslims in Bahrain, an ally of Saudi Arabia, have complained that their pro-democracy protests were quelled by Pakistani forces in 2007.

During the “black September” of 1970, a brigade led by Pakistani brigadier Zia ul Haq was accused of killing 10,000 to 25,000 Palestinians who rose up against the Jordanian monarch, although more conservative estimates put the number between 1,000 and 2,000.

Staffer Victor Beattie and VOA’s Urdu, Deewa and Turkish services contributed to this report.