Pakistan is refusing to abandon its neutrality after being asked by Saudi Arabia to take a stance amid growing tensions between a number of Gulf Arab states and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a meeting Monday in Jedda during which Salman reportedly offered an ultimatum: that Pakistan choose between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the neighboring, oil-rich monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula deal with a major diplomatic dispute. Shortly after a visit last month by President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia was joined by Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in severing relations with Qatar over accusations that Doha was sponsoring terrorism in the region. Saudi Arabia has since launched a concerted effort to isolate the tiny, peninsular nation.
“Are you with us or with Qatar?” Salman asked Sharif, according to a high-ranking diplomatic source, cited Wednesday by The Express Tribune, a Pakistani affiliate of The New York Times.
The political crisis in the Gulf has involved a number of international actors. Saudi Arabia’s decision to sever relations with Qatar earlier this month was partially brought on by Qatar’s unwillingness to cut ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s primary regional rival. Because Qatar is only bordered by Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s decision to impose a total blockade has sparked a humanitarian crisis that has led Iran to help provide assistance. Another regional player, Turkey, has publicly backed Qatar, criticizing Saudi Arabia’s actions and calling for a peaceful solution. Pakistan, however, has mostly kept quiet.
Qatar’s sudden alienation has raised concerns for Pakistan, which like Saudi Arabi, is a U.S. ally frequently accused of funding terrorism. The South Asian nation is already embroiled in disputes with neighboring Afghanistan and India, both of which accuse it of offering support to hardline Sunni Muslim militant groups such as the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The U.S. previously turned against Pakistan following revelations that Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden had been hiding in a compound in Abbottabad. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. locate Bin Laden, was later sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason.
It wasn’t until years later that the U.S. and Pakistan resumed military cooperation. In 2016, former President Barack Obama proposed that more than $1 billion in civilian and military aid be granted to Pakistan. The administration of his successor, President Donald Trump, is now considering major cuts to this aid. In response to California Representative Dana Rohrabacher’s question as to why the U.S. “gives Pakistan any aid at all” in light of its alleged relationship to groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday that Trump was looking into the issue.
“The president has asked the question specifically about our level of support and funding to Pakistan,” Tillerson said, emphasizing that no cuts had been made yet, according to India’s NDTV.
While Pakistan declined to outright back Saudi Arabia in the conflict, Trump’s emerging foreign policy reportedly may have urged Islamabad to agree to use its influence on Qatar and to resolve the crisis among the Arab Gulf states. However, Pakistan’s political rival, India, has reportedly opened up a new direct shipping route to Qatar, defying the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia.