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Why Pakistan needs to remain neutral in Qatar-Gulf rift?

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] K [/yt_dropcap]eeping Pakistan’s strong diplomatic relations with the Middle Eastern countries, it is in best favor of Pakistan to keep a balanced stance of the current Qatar-Gulf rift.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Maldives, Yemen and United Arab Emirates have cut off their diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorism. Yemen, Maldives joins Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt in suspending relations, whereas, Qatari nationals given two weeks’ notice to leave the UAE. Qatar says that this move by the Gulf countries is “unjustified” and expresses “deep regret” over the decision. According to experts, tensions between the Arab Gulf states and Iran will not only have an effect on the Middle East, but the fallout from these diplomatic tensions will also affect South Asia. That is precisely the reason that this move by Saudi Arabia and its allies has put Pakistan in a difficult position with regards to the regional politics of the Middle East.

Pakistan-Qatar bilateral relations

Pakistan and Qatar have robust bilateral relations aided by the historical close ties and substantive engagement. In February 2016, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif went on the official landmark visit to Doha where he met Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. Before this, he Emir of the State of Qatar had paid a landmark visit to Pakistan on 23-24 March 2015. In March 2017, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, went to Qatar on an official visit where he met Qatar’s Minister of Defense Affairs Doctor Khalid Bin Muhammad Al-Attiya. At this point, both the leaders vowed that the Pak-Qatar defense cooperation will have a positive impact on bilateral relations as well as on the regional security. General Bajwa also met Prime Minister of Qatar Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al Thani, who showed his interest in learning from Pakistan Army’s experience in the security domain and sought assistance during the upcoming World Cup to be held in Qatar, including the provision of manpower.

Pakistan-Qatar Economic ties

During Nawaz’ visit to Qatar in February 2016, a number of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) in the field of health, radio, television, education, research and a long term sale purchase agreement (SPA) of LNG were concluded by both sides. The main focus of the Prime Minister’s visit and interaction with the Qatari leadership will be on further enhancement of bilateral relations in various fields, including energy, cooperation, trade and investment, defense and increase in employment opportunities for the Pakistani workforce in Qatar. But the highlight of the visit was the deal between both the countries on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for a period of the fifteen years. Pakistan has been suffering through a severe energy crisis and the import of LNG from Qatar would be a positive step to address the issue. The deal has large prospects for the energy sector as Pakistan would be able to meet its energy requirements. 3.75 million tons of LNG would be imported annually on a government-to-government basis, at comparative rates. The price agreed for each LNG cargo discharged per month is 13.37pc of Brent value which is cheaper than the gas to be imported through pipeline projects, including the Iran-Pakistan (IP) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) projects.

In the first phase, from 2016 to first quarter of 2017, the annual contract LNG quantity would be prorate of 2.25m tons, which would be increased to 3.75m tons per annum beginning second quarter of 2017. The long-term agreement would also provide for annual upward and downward flexibilities of up to three LNG cargoes against the two earlier agreed upon per contract year. The LNG deal would also provide the LNG to Pakistan on 15-day deferred payment against the earlier settlement of defer payment for 10 days. According to the agreement, the cost of imported gas is estimated to be $4.78 per mmbtu, lower than the Qatar’s current rate of $5.35 mmbtu and the cheapest in its kind in South Asia. Apart from LNG deal, PM Nawaz has called upon the Qatar Investment Authority to explore and invest in the oil, gas and power sector of Pakistan.

But why can’t Pakistan fully take Qatar’s side?

The problem for the government of Nawaz Sharif is that they have a close relation with both the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Sharif family was given refuge by the Saudi royal family after the coup of 1999. Also more importantly, Pakistan and Saudi-Arabia diplomatic relations that are age-old bond of friendship is getting stronger with every passing year. Saudi Arabia’s long-standing and comprehensive relationship with Pakistan operates at many levels and in many areas, including trade, governance and values, health, education and culture besides politics and security. The two countries also work together extensively at the international level, within the framework of several bilateral, regional and global organizations including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Moreover, the Kingdom is the biggest exporter of oil and petroleum products to Pakistan, while Saudi Arabia has been a key market for Pakistani goods and services. No doubt, the two sides sought to develop extensive commercial, cultural, religious, political and strategic relations since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. Pakistan affirms its relationship with Saudi Arabia as their most “important and bilateral partnership” in the current foreign policy of Pakistan, while working and seeking to further strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, the country that hosts the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah. Another important point to consider is that Saudi Arabia has recently requested Pakistan to allow the ex-Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif to lead the 39 nations’ Islamic Military Alliance to combat extremism and terrorism in the Muslim World. It is said that this arrangement will bolster the relations between the two countries (only if Military Alliance is not used against the other Muslim countries like Iran).

Saudi Arabia’s or Qatar’s group? Dilemma of Pakistan

The government of Nawaz Sharif has a close relation with both the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Sharif family was given refuge by the Saudi royal family after the coup of 1999. On the other hand, the Nawaz government has trade relations with Qatar. Moreover, with regards to Panama leaks, Qatar is also important due as the letter by a Qatari royal is an important part of the case for Nawaz and his family. The Qatari who sent the letter, Hammad Bin Jassim bin Jaber Al-Thani, is part of the royal family of the current emir. Therefore, the Nawaz government will try not to offend the Qataris as it could backfire in the Panama leak case.

Another quandary for Pakistan is that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are working in Saudi Arabia and UAE, and the about the same number of Pakistanis work in Qatar, whom remittances back to the home country are an integral part of Pakistan’s economy. Taking anyone’s side in this issue might put the employment of these people into jeopardy.

The larger picture of this division that is emerging is as such: On one side there is Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, United States and Israel. On the other side there is Iran, China, Russia, Iraq and Syria. In such a case, to talk about balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia is illogical.
In this scenario, Pakistan cannot take the side of the anti-Iran group as Iran is Pakistan’s neighbor who has recently given churlish statements against Pakistan regarding border security issues. Pakistan, therefore, cannot afford to involve in any such matter that will fuel Iran’s anger further.

For Pakistan, CPEC is an important factor in the equation, and the deteriorating situation in the region might adversely affect the completion of CPEC. It could be a possibility that parties involved in these regional tensions start backing terror groups like Taliban and Jundullah for their own benefit. The resulting instability and tensions might put CPEC in danger and this will be detrimental to Pakistan. The effects of this situation between Riyadh and Doha on CPEC are Pakistan’s biggest source of stress right now.

Last but not the least, Pakistan cannot espouse the Saudi Arabia group against the Qatar on the basis of its alleged support of terrorism. Pakistan must know its vulnerable status today in the region and world politics, where it has repeatedly accused to sponsor and support terrorist and militant organizations that conduct suicide attacks in the neighboring countries. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading think tank in the United States, has released a report today calling Pakistan a “sanctuary for the Taliban and the Haqqani network”. In such situation, if Pakistan endorses the actions of the Saudi’s group against the Qatar’s, who knows the same allegations and diplomatic boycott, might become the fate of Pakistan in the future.

Therefor the foreign policy options for Pakistan are very limited. Pakistan has good relations with Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest exporter of crude oil. Abu Dhabi in the UAE is also a major oil exporter. Meanwhile, Pakistan has a good LNG, low-density liquid fuel and refining product derived from natural gas deal with Qatar for the next fifteen years. So, it would be in the favor of Pakistan if Pakistan’s Foreign Office decides to remain neutral on the current Qatar-Gulf rift. The best option for Pakistan is to have a balanced stance for the time being, and wait for the dust to settle. The best response of Pakistan in this matter will be no response at all.

Maria Amjad has graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, Pakistan, with a Political Science degree. Her interests include the history and politics of the South Asian region with a particular interest in India-Pakistan relations. The writer can be reached at mariaamjad309[at]gmail.com

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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