ISLAMABAD — Pakistan wants to increase defense cooperation with Qatar, but though relations between the states are warm, analysts are uncertain if improvements can be achieved.
The move also comes against the background of Pakistan's strained relations with other Arab gGulf sStates stemming from its failure to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Efforts to improve Qatar-Pakistan defense relations were proposed during a visit to Islamabad, which started Monday, by Qatar Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Ghanim Bin Shaheen al-Ghanim.
During his stay al-Ghanim met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Army leader Gen. Raheel Sharif, and head of the Navy Adm. Muhammad Zakaullah.
According to a press release by the military's Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) media branch, during the meeting with General Sharif, al-Ghanim praised the military's fight against terrorism and "discussed matters of professional interest and mutual cooperation between the two Armed Forces."
He also discussed avenues for further cooperation with Zakaullah as well as the Pakistan Navy's role in the region.
The prime minister stressed the importance of Qatar to Pakistan and highlighted the potential for improved defense and industrial relations.
Author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said bilateral relations are generally good, but further improvement may not be easily forthcoming.
"Pakistan's relations with Qatar are very good, and there are regular ship visits, for example, with the frigate PNS Aslat having visited last November. The last Qatar Navy chief was a graduate of Pakistan's Navy college and Pakistan's [chief of naval staff], Adm. Zakaullah, is a former defense attache in Qatar. There are frequent exchange visits by senior Army officers and it is obvious that ties are close."
Nevertheless, "Qatar's armed forces number only about 12,000 and the market for anything that Pakistan could supply in the way of defense materiel is decidedly limited," he added.
Ultimately, therefore, Cloughley does not see much scope for improvement here.
"The current visit is evidence of mutual goodwill, and it can be expected that this will grow. Members of Qatar's armed forces will continue to be trained in Pakistan and modest inter-service cooperation will continue. But it cannot be expected that there will be any major developments."
A major impediment to any improvements, according to analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military consortium think tank, is Pakistan's refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition cobbled together at the behest of the Yemeni government to combat the Houthi rebels in that country.
Khan said he believes the split between Pakistan and the Arab gGulf sStates is deep due to Pakistan rebuffing the clear request for help, and will not easily be healed, something that is now being exploited by Pakistan's arch-rival, India.
"Ever since Qatar has been part of the Saudi-led coalition against the rebels in Yemen, by not joining the coalition Pakistan has put itself in a very precarious situation. This decision by the elected members of the Pakistani parliament not to join this coalition has some long-term detrimental consequence to Pakistan national security interests with the Gulf Cooperation Council," he said.
"This decision was not prudent and the fear factor flagged by the politicians that Pakistan could harm its relationship with Iran has no basis," he added. in reference to the fears of a strained bilateral relationship with Tehran and increased sectarian conflict within Pakistan (perhaps partly instigated by Iran) should it have joined to Saudi-led coalition.
One reason given Though one of the additional reasons given for not contributing troops was that Pakistan was overstretched fighting the remnants of the Pakistani Taliban and other terrorists on the Afghan-Pakistan border, but Khan believes there was sufficient spare military capacity available to have dispatched a sizable air and ground component to join the coalition.
However, an important contribution Pakistan could have made while avoiding direct combat would have been he highlights another option that could have avoided a high profile large scale ground and air contribution, but still one that would have been worthwhile by imparting its experience gained from its own counter-insurgency operations. This experience is what the Saudi-led coalition lacked the most, and would have been Pakistan's most valuable contribution, he said.
"Pakistan could have supported the coalition by providing naval assets to secure the maritime environment around the coast of Yemen," he said, adding, "Providing active operations advisers during ground and air operations would have helped both sides."
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.