Earlier this month, Qatar introduced a visa-free entry program for 80 countries to attract more tourists and business people to the tiny emirate following the Saudi-led embargo that has isolated it within the Gulf Cooperation Council. The list included US and European countries, India, China, Russia, but curiously left out Pakistan, one of its close allies. Qatar’s action has drawn protests from Islamabad, but Doha has remained unmoved.
Kuwait, another GCC favourite, has placed visa restrictions on Pakistanis since 2011.
while they don’t call it a visa ban, Pakistanis have to go through much stricter scrutiny than other countries’ citizens. Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif personally intervened in March 2017 with the Kuwaiti leadership, but despite promises of review, Pakistanis continue to stay on the restricted list.
Is the Pakistan-Gulf relationship fraying at the edges? In 2015, Pakistan refused to join the Saudi alliance against Yemen prompting swift angry reprisals from the UAE authorities. Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s biggest benefactors, virtually asked Pakistan to choose between Riyadh and Doha earlier this year, when the Gulf states hit out at Qatar for its alleged support to terrorists.
Pakistan, for a while, considered pulling out Gen Raheel Shareef as commander of the Saudi-led anti-terrorism alliance after Nawaz Sharif felt ignored and shunned in Riyadh during a visit by Donald Trump. Sharif was not allowed to deliver his prepared speech, nor could he meet Trump. To add insult to injury, Trump named only India as a victim of terror, when Pakistan insists it has paid the largest cost in human terms.
The Qatar decision this month was not a one-off. In November ’16, it introduced visas on arrival for tourists from India, Russia, China among others. In September, it liberalised its visa regime for Indian citizens with US Green Cards or UK permanent residents. Pakistan was not on either list. However, Qatar has just launched a new shipping route to Karachi which might mitigate Pakistan’s difficulties, after a 15-year LNG deal concluded in 2016.
The agreements are forcing Pakistan to choose between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The Kuwait visa ban on Pakistan has had other consequences — it has become difficult for its businessmen and executives to go to Gulf countries or work there, because of travel restrictions between GCC countries. It’s also making it difficult for them to be recruited in corporate sector. UAE foreign minister Anwar Gargash was in Delhi sometime ago to assure India the ongoing crisis between GCC and Qatar would have no effect on India’s ties with either side.