ISLAMABAD - Saudi Arabia-led decision on Monday to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar has put Pakistan between a rock and a hard place as Islamabad enjoys friendly ties with both the states.

Six Arab states – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen – closed their ties with their Gulf neighbour accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and escalating the tensions in the region.

Reacting angrily to the closure of borders and airspace, and severing of diplomatic relations by these states, Qatar condemned the decision describing it as an ‘unjustified’ move based on ‘false claims and assumptions’ to ‘undermine’ the oil rich Gulf state.

Pakistan, in its immediate response, said it won’t join the KSA-led move against Qatar – whose ruling elite is close to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Since PM Sharif has personal ties with the Saudi royal family too, it will be hard to leave one and choose the other.

Foreign Office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria said that Pakistan would continue diplomatic ties with Qatar.

“For now [at least], there is no change for Qatar. We will announce if there is any development on this issue,” he said.

Another official at the foreign ministry said that Pakistan would not jump into confrontation between other countries.

“We cannot cut ties with Saudi Arabia or Qatar for their tension. Pakistan is a sovereign country and has to take its own interests into consideration,” he added.

The KSA, who led the move, accused the Sunni majority state of sponsoring terrorism through support to groups like al-Qaeda, Daesh (ISIS) and Muslim Brotherhood.

It also accused Qatar of supporting Iranian-backed militants in its restive and largely Shia-populated eastern region of Qatif and in Bahrain.

Interestingly, Qatar in recent weeks has been accused outright of terror funding in articles which have appeared in the American media.

The US and Iran had divergent opinion about the crisis but they both urged all the parties to address their differences through dialogue.

The Qatari test for Pakistan comes amid tensions with India, Iran and Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has his own reasons for better ties with Qatar as his family is being probed in Panama leaks scandal where Qatari Prince Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al-Thani is playing a role to rescue them.

On the other hand, Riyadh has saved Sharif’s life in the past when military ruler Pervez Musharraf had imprisoned him after a coup in 1999.

Also, they have always economically helped Pakistan – especially when Sharif is in power.

A senior government official said that Pakistan was finding it hard to keep the all sides happy.

“There is tension all around. We have differences with Afghanistan. We are trying to placate Iran and there is tension along the Line of Control (LOC). Amid all this, we have been thrown into a new test [by Saudi Arabia],” he contended.

On Monday, Qatari Prince Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Al-Thani regretted that he could not appear before the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the Panama Papers case against the Sharif family as he was ‘busy’.

Earlier, Hussain Nawaz - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s son - had requested the JIT to allow the Qatari prince to record his statement through video link.

The JIT quashed the plea on Monday.

However, a letter by Qatri prince was delivered to the JIT in which he maintained that he could not personally attend the proceedings.

Saudi Arabia may not officially ask Pakistan to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar but Riyadh will definitely expect Islamabad to show solidarity.

Pakistan recently allowed former army chief Raheel Sharif to command a Saudi Arabia-led military alliance of 39 Muslim states.

The alliance was formed by the kingdom in December 2015 with its headquarters in Riyadh.

Iran had objected to the formation of the alliance fearing it was a Sunni-alliance rather than a Muslim alliance.

The government had also delayed approval to Raheel – considering Iran’s objections – for several months before finally giving a nod to the former army chief.

Former Pakistan ambassador to the United States Senator Sherry Rehman said that events were overtaking Pakistan’s responses at international forums where dangerous tensions were escalating at multiple levels.

“Fault-lines in the Muslim world will only hurt Pakistan one way or the other, as we have stakes in all blocs and countries,” she said.

The lawmaker said that it was one thing to not take sides in the Qatar crisis, but “this is not leadership”.

She added: “How did Pakistan manage to get so sidelined at the Saudi Arabia conference? As a frontline state in the war against terrorism and as a nuclear power we were not given due recognition.”

The Pakistan People’s Party leader said that in the divides and wars in the Muslim world, Pakistan should have been leading as a peacemaker, not just a victim of circumstances.

“We need to take control of our messaging, and our diplomacy, but for that you need a government and foreign minister who is not under siege,” she said.

Senator Sherry said that the nation must be told about the reality of its relations with states in the Middle East and the neighbourhood.

“Right now there is no transparency on foreign policy, nor is there a clear directional path articulated by government,” she maintained.

Former ambassador Shahid Amin said that Pakistan had special relations with all the Muslim-majority countries in the Gulf and the Middle East.

“We should play a role to work together. We cannot stand with one and ignore the other,” he said.

Charge-sheet against Qatar

Agencies add: Saudi news agency SPA said on Monday Riyadh cut the ties and closed borders with its neighbour to “protect its national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism”.

A Saudi official cited by SPA said the country decided to “sever diplomatic and consular ties with Qatar, and to close all land, sea and aviation ports”.

The “decisive” measure was due to “gross violations committed by authorities in Qatar over the past years”, the Saudi statement said.

“(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly,” state news agency SPA said.

The UAE followed suit in cutting ties, and Egypt’s foreign ministry also accused Doha of supporting terrorism as it announced the severing of diplomatic relations. The statement said all Egyptian ports and airports would be closed to Qatari vessels and planes.

The UAE has given Qatari diplomats 48 hours to leave the country. Abu Dhabi accuses Doha of “supporting, funding and embracing terrorism, extremism and sectarian organisations,” state news agency WAM said.

Bahrain’s news agency said the tiny kingdom was cutting ties with Doha over its insistence on “shaking the security and stability of Bahrain and meddling in its affairs”.

The Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting rebels in Yemen’s two-year war meanwhile said it was expelling Qatar over what it said was the country’s support for organisations including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Doha has long faced accusations that it is a state sponsor of terror.

It has been criticised in some quarters for its support of rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Qatari individuals have also been sanctioned by the US Treasury for terror-funding activities.

It was also criticised for providing a sanctuary to former Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who earlier this month used his Doha base — where he has lived in exile for several years — to launch a new policy document.

The Afghan Taliban opened an office in Doha in 2013.

Qatar, which will host the 2022 football World Cup, is a member of the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State group. The country is also home to the Al-Udeid airbase, where the US conducts all coalition air operations for the region

The decision comes after Qatar alleged in late May that hackers took over the site of its state-run news agency and published what it called fake comments from its ruling emir about Iran and Israel.

Its Gulf Arab neighbours responded with anger, blocking Qatari-based media, including the Doha-based satellite news network Al-Jazeera.

Qatari reaction

Qatar foreign ministry in an angry reaction condemned the decision and described it as a move to “undermine” the state of Qatar.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar expresses its deep regret and surprise at the decisions [by the neighbours]... to close their borders and airspace, and sever diplomatic relations with the State of Qatar, bearing in mind that these measures are unjustified and based on false claims and assumptions,” it said in a statement.

It said Qatar has been subjected to a campaign of lies that have reached the point of complete fabrication. It reveals a hidden plan to undermine Qatar.

“Qatar is an active member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and is fully committed to its charter. Qatar respects the sovereignty of other nations and does not interfere in their internal affairs, and it has fulfilled its role in fighting terrorism and extremism,” the statement said.

The statement said it is clear that the media campaign of fabrications has failed to sway public opinion in the region, and among Gulf countries in particular, and this explains the continued escalation against Qatar.

“That reasons were fabricated in order to take action against a brotherly GCC nation is clear evidence that there is no legitimate justification for such measures, which have been implemented in coordination with Egypt,” said the statement.

“Their purpose is clearly the imposition of guardianship over Qatar, which is in itself a violation of its sovereignty, and is rejected outright.”

The Qatari statement pointed out that the allegations contained in the statements by the three GCC nations clearly confirm the existence of a planned and clandestine media campaign, which has included fabrications and fake news.

The Foreign Ministry stressed that these measures will not affect the normal course of life of citizens and residents of Qatar. The Qatari government will take all necessary measures to ensure this and thwart attempts to influence and harm Qatari society and economy.

Finally, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry expressed its regret that the three countries have determined, at this critical time for the region, that there are no greater threats to their people that require their attention, and have instead decided to target and cause harm to the State of Qatar.”

US response

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he does not expect Monday’s actions to have an impact on the fight against terrorism in the region or globally.

The US military’s Central Command maintains a large presence at the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

He urged all of the parties to sit down and address their disagreements and offered US assistance to do so. He said, “The U.S. thinks it is important for the members of the GCC to remain unified.”

“I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of some irritants in the region that have been there for some time, and obviously they have now bubbled up to a level that countries decided they needed to take action in an effort to have those differences addressed,” he said.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis blamed Iran for discord in the area saying, “Iran’s actions speak louder than anyone’s words.”

US Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith also shared messages on Twitter that she and her embassy’s account originally wrote in October 2016 expressing US support for Qatari efforts to combat terrorist financing.

Iran urges dialogue

Iran’s foreign ministry on Monday urged Qatar and neighbouring Gulf Arab countries to engage in dialogue.

“The solution to differences between states in the region... is only possible through political and peaceful methods and dialogue between the parties,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said in a statement.