For Pakistan, maintaining cordial ties with Qatar cannot be overemphasized, particularly when Islamabad’s role in the security infrastructure of the Gulf is on the wane, the dwindling economy at home is limiting foreign policy options, and a perpetual energy crisis is looming large.
Islamabad’s strong commitment to maintaining cordial ties with Doha was reflected no more vividly than during the Qatar crisis. During more than a three-year-long diplomatic stand-off between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc of four influential Arab states – Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Egypt – Pakistan did not sever bilateral ties with the tiny, oil and gas-rich state, despite intensifying pressure from Riyadh to take a clear position on the brewing crisis in the Arab world.
Pakistan was one of the first countries to welcome the signing of the AlUla Declaration, a landmark agreement bringing an end to three-and-a-half-year diplomatic isolation of Qatar in the first week of January 2021, and the resultant resumption of Doha’s ties with the four major hitherto enraged Arab states. Pakistan’s vital role in maintaining peace and stability in the region is often lauded by the Qatari leadership, who sped up visits to Islamabad after the easing of diplomatic tensions in the Gulf, a gesture duly reciprocated by high-level visits of Pakistani officials to Doha.
Pakistan’s embrace of Qatar comes as no surprise to those well up on the changing geo-strategic landscape of the region. In recent years, Indian influence in the Middle East has increased manifold under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The “Look West” policy pursued by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a foreign policy approach to cement and strengthen diplomatic engagement with three major actors of the region – Iran, Israel and the Arab states – is tightly integrating New Delhi in the military, diplomatic, political and economic affairs of the Arab world.
“Closer ties with Qatar are imperative if Pakistan needs to maintain its relevance in the Gulf, strengthen its economy and avert the ever-looming energy crisis”
The primary concern for Pakistani policymakers is Islamabad’s weakening military diplomacy in the Gulf, a region always considered a military stronghold of the country. In 2020, Indian military chief Manoj Mukund Naravane made a historic visit to the Gulf, aimed at ‘strengthening strategic and defence cooperation’. Previously, for decades, Indian ties with the Arab states have remained limited to energy imports and as well as export of cheap labour for drawing remittances from the wealthy Arab world. Recently, there is a marked increase in Indian labour flooding the Gulf markets. There are even predictions that Indian and Bangladeshi manpower is gradually replacing Pakistani labour in the Gulf. The transformation of New Delhi’s approach from geoeconomics to geostrategic and security domains has perturbed Islamabad, which has eyed the Gulf for the very reasons since its independence.
In addition to rising Indian political clout, many Arab countries have normalized ties with Israel and others, including Saudi Arabia, have signalled to follow suit. Israeli cutting-edge warfare technology and advanced military industry bode ill for Islamabad’s so far dominant role in providing security to the Gulf. Many political commentators have already indicated that there is a new transregional order in the offing, primarily shaped by India, Israel and UAE.
Pakistan’s economy is facing the crisis in years, and excessive reliance on foreign countries for economic assistance has compromised the state’s ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. Recently, Islamabad turned down the US President Joe Biden’s invitation to participate in a virtual meeting of more than 100 democratic states, many experts believing that Washington’s not inviting Beijing has compelled Islamabad to take the decision. Similarly, Pakistani leadership in the past has also succumbed to the pressure exerted by the states on which Islamabad has heavy economic and energy dependence, resulting in rowing back on foreign policy decisions.
“Consequently, forging closer and sustainable bilateral ties with Qatar is consistently on Pakistan’s radar. Pakistani policymakers, therefore, are alive to the fact that friendly ties with Qatar will ensure Islamabad remains relevant in the region, its ailing economy is bolstered and the escalating energy crisis is solved.”
Qatar, for various reasons, is a more viable and secure option for Pakistani policymakers to consolidate bilateral ties.
- First, Qatar has played a key role in mediating the Afghan crisis and holds sway over primary stakeholders of the conflict. The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has serious political and security implications for Pakistan, therefore, a deep collaboration with Qatar to resolve the Afghan crisis is crucial.
- Second, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE that get annoyed at Pakistan’s diplomatic overtures to Turkey and Iran, Qatar has over the years forged deeper collaboration with both Ankara and Tehran. Pakistan can freely pursue an independent policy towards Qatar.
- Third, there are tremendous employment opportunities for overseas Pakistanis in Qatar. Doha comprises 27% of the total remittances Islamabad draws from the Gulf, and there growing number of labour export from Islamabad to engage them in the FIFA-related projects, with Pakistan offering to provide the tiny state with essential security during the event.
- Fourth, to avert the evolving energy crisis, Pakistan and Qatar signed a 10-year liquified natural gas (LNG) agreement in February 2021. It will reduce Islamabad’s dependence on other countries for energy needs by providing an alternate, cheaper source of energy market.
- Fifth, Qatar has not signalled to normalize ties with Israel, and on the other hand, has supported the Palestinians’ demand for a separate homeland, a stance irking the other Arab states that accuse the state of sponsoring terrorism.
In a nutshell, closer ties with Qatar are imperative if Pakistan needs to maintain its relevance in the Gulf, strengthen its economy and avert the ever-looming energy crisis.