Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was in Pakistan for a brief one-day visit in the third week of June 2019. Emir, and his delegation, arrived in the evening of Friday 22, he was personally received, at Noor Khan airbase, (known to residents of Islamabad as the old airport) by Imran Khan, Pakistan’s premier, who personally drove him to Prime Minister’s house in Islamabad where a one on one meeting took place between the Emir and the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
During the visit, Qatar announced keeping $3 billion in State Bank of Pakistan to support country’s balance of payments. Three memoranda of understanding (MoU) were signed on Saturday, between Qatar and Pakistan, in trade and investment, tourism and business events, and exchange of financial intelligence and then Emir left in the early afternoon of June 23.
On the face, it was pretty routine affair – albeit much shorter than most routines – with the usual pomp and show; a guard of honor by three service personnel and salute by JF-17 strike fighters and a ceremony in which President of Pakistan conferred country’s highest civilian award upon the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad Al Thani.
But this visit, Emir’s first since 2015, was long in making and carries the potential of a broad-based relationship – provided both sides can appreciate each other’s geo-strategic limitations and work gradually to build confidence and space. Both Pakistan and Qatar had been working step by step to forge a closer relationship of trust ever since Imran Khan government took power in August 2018. Before the July elections, PTI leadership had often criticized the LNG deals Nawaz and later Shahid Khaqan Abbassi governments struck with Qatar.
A careful, step by step, process of engagement was thus necessary between Islamabad and Doha. But the process was made trickier because the new Pakistani government was also busy engaging its traditional allies in the gulf – Saudi Arabia and UAE – and unfortunately since June 2017 GCC countries had developed serious fault lines amongst themselves leading to a blockade of tiny Doha by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
Pakistanis that believed in poet Iqbal’s vision of “Aik hoon Muslim Haram ki Pasbani kay liye, Neel kay Sahil say lay kar Tabakhak e Kashgar” (There is only one Muslim to lead the Ummah from the shores of Nile to the dusts of Kashgar) could not have been more disturbed by the ever-deepening faultiness across the Muslim Middle East.
UAE and Bahrain have cut off diplomatic relations with Doha and have imposed an economic blockade upon tiny Qatar since June 2017, but Qatar continues to supply gas to UAE and Bahrain from its North field through Dolphin pipeline
However, notwithstanding the romanticism of Islamic bonds, importance of tiny Doha was never lost to decision-makers in Islamabad and Pindi. Qatar in recent years has emerged as the largest gas exporter of the world (along with Australia) and Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) founded in 2005 now maintains one of the biggest and most active sovereign wealth fund that is estimated to be around $350 billion.
In January 2019, Qatar has withdrawn from OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) on the grounds that it is more of a gas exporter than that of petroleum. While the decision was also seen as Doha seeking more independence from the influence of erstwhile big brother – Saudi Arabia – but the economic rationale cited had serious elements of truth.
Qatar, in the last few years, has grown its major LNG trading partners from 7 to 21. Japan, China, South Korea, India, Pakistan and European nations are all Qatar’s buyers. Qatar exported more than $40 billion of gas in 2018, this is increasing and if current contracts are considered then Pakistan will be importing gas worth $4 billion each year from Qatar.
Doha also maintains a carefully balanced foreign policy of “hedging” – something that is watched world over with deep interest and Pakistan’s foreign office is no exception. Qatar maintains largest US bases in the region, at Al Udeid near Doha, but has good relations of trust with Iran with whom it shares the undersea gas fields of North Field/South Pars in Persian Gulf.
In recent ongoing US-Iran tensions Doha offered mediation between Washington and Tehran and for the past several years Afghan Taliban had been maintaining their official presence in Doha which has finally supported the US-Taliban dialogue of which Pakistan is an active supporter. Qatar finances Palestinian groups like Hamas and has influence over Hezbollah but maintains excellent communication with Israel.
UAE and Bahrain have cut off diplomatic relations with Doha and have imposed an economic blockade upon tiny Qatar since June 2017, but Qatar continues to supply gas to UAE and Bahrain from its North field through Dolphin pipeline. Al Jazeera Arabic and English tinker with the sensitivities of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt but now give Qatar a global identity which only testifies to the long term vision of decision-makers in Doha.
Pakistan Army Chief in Doha & Qatari Foreign Minister in Islamabad
So it was not merely a coincidence that in the third week of October 2018, Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, was in Doha meeting Emir Tamim bin Hammad and his prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani and almost at the same time Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs of the State of Qatar was in Islamabad with a business delegation meeting Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan.
Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa, was apparently there to thank Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hammad, for his continued support to the Afghan peace process – but it was perhaps more than that. He arrived in Doha literally one day after the United States diplomats and Afghan Taliban representatives had met in the United Arab Emirates for the first round of talks facilitated by Pakistan on finding a negotiated settlement of the war in Afghanistan.
The meeting in Abu Dhabi was also attended by officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It was the third meeting between the Taliban and US officials since the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as US special envoy for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan – but it was the first that took place outside Doha that hosts Taliban’s political office.
Diplomatic sources familiar with the situation believed that the meeting was convened outside Qatar to underscore Pakistan’s role in arranging it, and at the same time allowing participation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of whom had last year cut diplomatic ties with Doha.
Gen. Bajwa was in Doha perhaps explaining Pakistan’s delicate balancing act and seeking Qatar’s continued understanding and support for a process in which both Qatar and Pakistan are deeply invested.
Almost at the same time, Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, was meeting Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs of the State of Qatar, who had called on him in Islamabad to convey felicitations and best wishes on behalf of the Emir of Qatar on Khan’s successful election and assumption of office.
Prime Minister Khan utilized the opportunity to invite Qatari investment in all sectors of Pakistan’s economy, especially in agriculture, livestock, and energy. Earlier Sheikh Al Thani had met his counterpart, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi who was quick in reminding him about his commitment to create 100,000 jobs for skilled Pakistani workers.
This commitment was apparently made when both foreign ministers met one month earlier during the United Nations General Assembly’s 73rd Session (UNGA) in New York. Most of these jobs will be created due to the investments in construction, hoteling, tourism and service industry Qatar is making to facilitate FIFA World Cup 2022 to be played in Doha in December 2022. This is the first time FIFA world cup is being played in an Arab country and a predominantly Muslim country.
Qureshi, according to statements issued by Pakistan Foreign Office, highlighted the huge potential for bilateral cooperation in energy, petroleum and petrochemical, agriculture and livestock sectors and also offered the professional services of the Pakistani workforce for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
June visit of Emir Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad had a wider context and build-up which is both strategic and investment-oriented
Doha had won the prestigious award of FIFA World Cup in 2010 and has since beaten back all attempts by its recalcitrant neighbors to shift matches to venues outside Qatar. December 2022 is going to witness a huge global event in Doha and much physical infrastructure and service industry will be shaped around this mega event. Al Thani invited Qureshi to visit Doha which Qureshi gladly accepted.
PM Imran Khan in Doha, Jan 2019
Soon, in January, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister was in Qatar on a two-day visit at the invitation of the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Finance Minister Asad Umar, Petroleum Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan, Adviser to PM Abdul Razak Dawood, Syed Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari, and Board of Investment Chairman Haroon Sharif and Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua accompanied him.
Upon their arrival, the delegation was received by Qatar’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan bin Saad al-Muraikhi at the airport. Khan met the Qatari Prime Minister but he also met Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad and amongst other issues export of skilled labour to Qatar was discussed which shows the priority Islamabad attached to the issue – and which makes it so important to understand the economic impact of FIFA World Cup 2022 on the region.
In December 2018, Qatar had already opened a visa facilitation center in Islamabad for swift processing of visas of members of the Pakistan workforce wishing to work in Qatar.
Doha has also promised 100,000 jobs for Pakistani workers, and the government is in talks with the Qatari government to adjust skilled members of the labor force returning from Saudi Arabia. Observers and policy experts on Gulf economies (like Author, Mehran Kamrava, ‘Qatar: Small State, Big Politics’) believe that workers from India and Pakistan suit employers and contractors because they are not part of the political currents of the region – unlike the workers from Egypt, Yemen or Morocco.
Qatar Investment Authority lands in Islamabad – April 2019
In the first week of April 2019, Sheikh Faisal bin Thani Al-Thani, Deputy Chief Investment Officer of the Qatar Foundation was in Islamabad heading a delegation of Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) that included representatives from various organizations in housing, tourism, real estate and energy sectors. This delegation was being facilitated by the then Chairman Board of Investment (BOI) Haroon Sharif who organized meetings of Sheikh Faisal and his delegation with all key ministers of Khan government including the then finance minister, Asad Umar.
This two-day dialogue was a follow-up to Pakistan-Qatar Investment Forum held in Doha in March. The delegation also met with Prime Minister Imran Khan who welcomed the Qatari interest in various sectors of the economy and highlighted various business opportunities in tourism, housing and other sectors.
Apart from finance minister Asad Umar – who briefed the delegation about the steps being taken by the government for ease of doing business and facilitating foreign investors – this delegation also met with Adviser to PM on Commerce Abdul Razak Dawood and Minister for Power Omar Ayub Khan and his team who explained government`s energy policy and highlighted the potential in power sector.
Later, this delegation also met with Minister for Housing and Works Tariq Bashir Cheema to explore opportunities in the government`s `Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme` and with Zulfi Bokhari on possible interests in projects related to overseas Pakistanis. Faisal Al Thani, a former banker, is not only the Deputy Chief Investment Officer with Qatar Foundation but he is also related to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad, and thus enjoys a powerful seat on the decision-making table in Doha.
Sheikh Faisal took a keen interest in almost all aspects of Pakistani economy and was repeatedly heard by his discussants that Qatar seeks a long term relationship with Pakistan. Board of Investment had organized his discussions with several key individuals from the government and industry and Sheikh’s questions were precise and probing. He and his delegation also discussed investment potential in areas such as tourism, energy and infrastructure with Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar.
Bakhtiar highlighted investment potential in Gwadar Industrial Zone and build the case that the port city of Baluchistan will emerge as regional trade hub. He asked the delegation to invest in various road infrastructure projects across Pakistan adding that some projects under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be encouraged on a build-operate-transfer basis. Minister for Maritime Affairs Ali Zaidi also discussed investment potential in Gwadar Port and in the maritime sector with the delegation.
Way Forward: Pakistan’s Balancing Act
Background helps explain that the June visit of Emir Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad had a wider context and build-up which is both strategic and investment-oriented – and is long term. Middle East dynamics have been changing since 9/11. Center of gravity has shifted from traditional centers like Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo towards the Persian Gulf where Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have emerged as powerhouses.
Qatar, as one of the world’s topmost energy exporter, manager of one of the biggest sovereign funds and a sophisticated foreign policy player (master of the art of hedging) is impressed by the role nuclear Pakistan plays in the region and it will be interested in Pakistani power sector, airports, hotels roads and infrastructure and can be persuaded to take interest in other areas like tourism.
But decision makers in Islamabad have to view Doha as more than a LNG exporter; tiny Qatar has assumed a strategic dimension that defies the old traditional thinking of size and population. (Qatar: 2.2 million with only 230,000 citizens). Doha will definitely be interested to sustain its role in conflict resolution in Afghanistan in which it has heavily invested and its support was crucial in achieving the current breakthrough between Washington and Taliban which is of utmost importance to Pakistan.
But unfortunately, erstwhile allies of GCC have developed serious fault lines as is obvious from the break up of diplomatic relations and continuing economic blockade of Qatar by the four GCC members – including Saudi Arabia and UAE. Qatar, to develop a deeper interest, will like Pakistan to improve its balancing act in the region and its internal economic commitments.
Cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy should be to show autonomy to maintain its relationship with all brotherly GCC countries in such a way that it can offer mediation and conflict resolution between them. With the meeting of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, with US President Donald Trump scheduled for the third week of July 2019, this becomes all the more important. Islamabad and the world has to learn the “art of hedging” from tiny Doha.