There couldn’t be a worse moment for Pakistan’s beleaguered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the spat between Qatar and some of its Arab neighbours to engulf the Islamic world.
Nawaz is, literally, up to his eyeballs in trouble at home. The country’s apex court has set up a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of a number of key agencies of the state to probe myriad charges and allegations of money laundering against him and his children.
The financial antics and shenanigans of three generations of the Sharif clan are under microscopic scrutiny. Nawaz’s oldest son, Hussain, has already been grilled on four separate days by the JIT. In a historic first for Pakistan, the sitting prime minister of the day, Nawaz, was summoned to appear before the JIT on June 15. There was no way for him to duck; the apex court mandated it that he could be summoned if needed.
The JIT felt that he ought to be probed and questioned too, just like his progeny.
A key card in Nawaz’s defence before the top court was ‘the letter from Qatar’ which his defence team produced to undercut the charge of money laundering by him and his family. The surprise letter, supposedly written by a prince of the Qatari ruling family, contended that the ‘prince’s’ father had owed a lot of money to Nawaz’ father; the grandpa’s grand kids, i.e. children of Nawaz, were compensated by the prince through the transfer of ownership of four luxury apartments in London’s tony Park Lane.
The apex court asked the JIT to summon the Qatari prince to appear before it. The prince begged off. That led to his magical letter being trashed by the JIT. Non-appearance of the prince was evidence that his letter was phony and deserved to be gutted. Nawaz wouldn’t know where to run for cover; his Qatari card had backfired on him.
But then the roof fell on Qatar itself, with the surprise action of June 5 by its Arab ‘brotherly’ states not only cutting off diplomatic ties with it but, adding insult to injury, also shutting out Qatar from their land, sea and air corridors.
The unprecedented and blatant assault against the tiny state of Qatar—which, incidentally, happened to be the richest country in the world in terms of per capita income of its citizens—led by Saudi Arabia also arrayed UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the Saudi side.
The Gulf crisis spawned on the spur by the Saudis has Donald Trump’s foot-prints all over it. He settled on none other than his Saudi royal friends to play host to him on his first venture abroad as the new occupant of the White House. The Saudis greeted him with weapons and arms purchases worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
He, in return, gave them a free hand to rein in Iran, their rival for regional supremacy, by singling it out as the font of all troubles and terrorism in the Middle East and the world.
The Saudis have chosen to make a horrible example of Qatar because of its closeness to Iran—not only in terms of joint exploitation of vast resources of natural gas—in terms of an ideological affinity. Qatar shares the Iranian perception that the Palestinians are freedom fighters. The Qataris also don’t frown upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—banned in Egypt by its Saudi-friendly military dictatorship—and refuse to declare Hamas, fighting for Palestinian rights, as a terrorist outfit. To the Saudi royals, now fully in bed with Israel, both the Brotherhood and Hamas are anathema.
While the Arabs, past-masters in triggering crises but hopelessly at bay in resolving any, may choose to wage their whimsical and stupid battles the way they choose, it raises a dilemma for a key Muslim state such as Pakistan.
More than any other man in Pakistan, the internecine Arab feud places Nawaz between the rock and a hard place.
He is personally beholden to the Saudis for saving his skin when his neck was in imminent danger of being chopped off by General Musharraf.
But the Saudis are the rogues in this crisis. Nawaz’s political opponents and law makers in the parliament are up in arms against his obsequious kowtowing to the Saudis who have triggered this crisis because of their incontinent urge to give the Iranians a bloody nose. The Iranian parliament building in Tehran was targeted by terrorists carrying Saudi imprints all over them the day after the Qataris had been declared pariahs by the Saudis.
The Pakistani parliamentarians have already demanded that Pakistan pull out of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) and its Chief, General Raheel Sharif of Pakistan called back.
There have been umpteen reservations in Pakistan about IMA from the moment of its conception. There were doubts aplenty about the Saudi designs from the word ‘go’. The IMA, the Saudis pretended, was all about combating terrorism plaguing the Islamic world. However, the Pakistani intelligentsia knew otherwise: It was all about Iran and the Saudis’ congenital hatred of Shiite Iran. The worst fears of the Pakistanis have come true. The Saudi royals have said it in so many words that they regard Iran as their enemy number one.
Pakistan, its thinking class argues, has no axe to grind and no bones to pick with Iran. The Pakistanis, to be honest, have much more in common with the Iranians than Saudis.
The Pakistani intelligentsia argues, rightly, that Pakistan doesn’t have to take sides in an intra-Arab crisis or in an inter-Muslims spat. Pakistan should seek to defuse any fires and play the role of an honest referee. Is Nawaz listening? Does he have the guts to stand up to his Saudi mentors is the million dollar question.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat