The Saudi-Qatar confrontation may seem not just an inter-Arab dispute, but an inter-Gulf one, perhaps because the hidden third party in the dispute, Iran, is a Gulf power, if not an Arab one. Another reason that the dispute looms larger than the Arab world is because it involves two Muslim countries, and offers up the possibility of the Muslim-on-Muslim violence unseen since the Iran-Iraq War. This makes it qualitatively different from the kind of other violence Muslims are suffering, whether in Kashmir, Palestine, Myanmar or Syria.

The last provides one motive for the confrontation: Qatar’s ability to sell its vast reserves of natural gas to Europe depends on pipelines through Syria. In the new world oil order shaping up, Qatar and Iran, as producers of natural gas, will compete with Saudi Arabia, as the world’s leading producer of traditional crude oil. Qatar sells its gas either in tankers carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG), or through pipelines. Pipelines running through Syria’s war-torn landscape are how Qatar means to sell its gas to Europe.

This is the point at which Pakistan enters the picture, because it has a contract to import Qatari LNG. There is also the factor that Qatar has received a large number of Pakistani workers. Indeed, with Qatar hosting the 2022 football World Cup, it provides a more prosperous environment for overseas workers than Saudi Arabia, which is also a major recipient of Pakistani labour, but which has also seen a recent spate of business failures which have left Pakistani labourers unpaid and stranded. Saudi Arabia is also tied closely to Pakistan by hydrocarbons, and has made sure than Pakistan has kept afloat at times of financial crisis, both by crude oil support and massive deposits with the State Bank of Pakistan to shore up its foreign exchange reserves.

Thus while it would seem that Pakistan should join the Saudi moves against Qatar, especially since they were being backed by the other countries where Pakistani labour was heavily employed, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, there are also solid reasons for Pakistan to stay out. Of the three strongest Muslim countries, Pakistan is not taking sides, Egypt has supported Saudi Arabia, while Turkey has supported Qatar.

There is clearly something murky going on. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both Wahabi, but by placing itself on the side of Iran, Qatar has also placed itself against Saudi Arabia not just politically, but also religiously. It is an indication that religion does not weigh that much upon either Qatar or Iran that they have accepted each other as allies, to the extent that Iran has offered Qatar the replacement of the routes for food and water that passed through Saudi Arabia, and which it has closed.

Interestingly, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are US allies. True, both are also against the sort of change represented by the Arab Spring, but both are virtually embodiments of the kind of regime that they tried to replace: Monarchical, oil-rich and being so far under US influence as to have their regimes underwritten by the USA. Qatar is home to the Al Udeid Air Base, one of the largest US bases in the world and the place from which US Central Command ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently runs the campaign against the Islamic State. The base became more important to US war planners in 2003, when the Saudis demanded the withdrawal of American military personnel.

Saudi Arabian defence cooperation continued, however, to the extent that, on US President Donald Trump’s recent visit, it signed agreements worth $110 billion immediately and $350 billion over the next 10 years, enough to lift US defence companies stocks. Qatar then virtually replied, with a $12 billion deal to buy 36 F15 fighters. Saudi Arabia already has 232 F15s, with a further 84 on order. Qatar will induct them for the first time, but this is part of the refurbishment of its air force, which has also ordered 18 Rafale fighters from France.

It might also be noted that President Trump’s visit was virtually an affirmation of Saudi Arabia’s position in the region as its most reliable ally. Saudi Arabia saw this as an opportunity to crack down on all dissent, which included making Qatar align its foreign policy with it, especially in the case of Iran. On the other hand, the USA prioritises the fight against IS, which is not helped by the confrontation.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is already stretched militarily, and cannot really afford another entanglement on its borders. It is already committed in Yemen, a war which is being supervised by Defence Minister and new Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. In fact, his direct succession, skipping ex-Crown Prince Muhammad bin Naif, is supposed to be one of the motives for the confrontation. It is true that the new Crown Prince is seen by the USA as ‘their man’, for not only was he educated there, but he was also on display there on a visit in March, the high point of which was his meeting with President Trump. If there is any involvement of the succession issue, then Saudi Arabia can be expected to treat it as an existential issue. Nothing is more important to the dynasty than the succession.

Another issue which has not been highlighted is how Qatar is supposed to support Hamas, and the Ikhwanul Muslimeen, of which Hamas is merely the Palestinian version. Hamas is anathema to Israel, and the Ikhwan to Egypt, where the current Sisi regime only took over after ousting the Ikhwan President. Saudi Arabia looks askance at the Ikhwan’s unfavourable view of dictators, and its emphasis on elections. Saudi Arabia looks askance at Iran not just because it is Shia, but because it conducts regular elections and thus sets a ‘bad example.’ It is worth noting that the whole dispute is based on the Saudi acceptance of the Israeli view of terrorism, on which is based the US view. Hamas’ opposition to Mohammad bin Salman only stokes Saudi Arabia’s ire against Qatar.

Pakistan tried a rather forlorn attempt at peacemaking, with Mian Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia, but while he himself has a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, where he spent his exile after he was ousted from power, he also has one with Qatar, where a Qatari prince, Hamad bin Jasim El Thani, had written to the Supreme Court to say that he had had dealing with the late Mian Sharif, Mian Nawaz’s father, which had explained the Mayfair flats passing into the possession of Mian Nawaz’s sons. The Joint Investigation Team is now contemplating going to Qatar, after the prince had declined to come to Pakistan to appear before the JIT. It is worth differentiating here that while Pakistan’s government has a very strong interest in taking sides with Qatar, Pakistan’s state would have more reason to take the Saudi side. It will be a national-interest decision in the end, just as much as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are themselves making.


n             The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

Saudi Arabia is also tied closely to Pakistan by hydrocarbons, and has made sure than Pakistan has kept afloat at times of financial crisis, both by crude oil support and massive deposits with the State Bank of Pakistan to shore up its foreign exchange reserves.