Author: Ashok Sajjanhar, Institute of Global Studies
A political earthquake shook the Persian Gulf and its neighbours on 5 June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt all severed links with Qatar, a member of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). These countries were soon joined by Libya, Yemen and the Maldives. Kuwait and Oman, the other two members of GCC, refused to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.
Saudi Arabia declared that it had made the decision because of Qatar’s ‘embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region’, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State (IS) and groups supported by Iran. This sounds strange (to put in mildly) because Saudi Arabia can be accused of similar or worse crimes, including in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Qatar vehemently denies that it supports terrorism, arguing that it has assisted the United States in the War on Terror and in the ongoing military intervention against ISIS.
The relevant countries stopped all traffic with Qatar, ejected its diplomats and ordered Qatari citizens to leave Gulf states within 14 days. Even though Saudi–Qatari relations have been stressed for some time, the decision came as a huge shock to Qatar.
Buoyed by huge earnings from its large gas reserves, Qatar has been trying to carve out an independent foreign policy — a course which has put it in confrontation with other major Arab nations. This conflict has not been helped by Qatar’s influential news channel Al Jazeera, which is extensively viewed both inside and outside the region, and which is often critical of Saudi Arabia.
Immediate causes for the drastic action are not clear. Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field with Iran, and has been in and out of talks with the country over several issues — a clear act of defiance against Saudi Arabia’s efforts to create a united front against its implacable foe. Saudi Arabia has demanded that Qatar break off ties with Iran, close down Al Jazeera and cease all support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, IS and other such groups.
Russia, Turkey, Iran, France and Germany have supported an early, peaceful resolution of the dispute. The US position is less coherent — it seems plausible that Saudi Arabia was emboldened to take this drastic step because of strong support from President Trump during his recent visit to Riyadh.
It is unlikely that Qatar will succumb to the demands. It has approached the UN Security Council for relief. Turkey and Iran are sending food and other essential goods. Both Turkey and the United States have bases in Qatar, with the US Centcom Al Udeid air base possessing 100 aircraft and 10,000 military personnel.
Indians comprise the largest expatriate group in the Gulf and could be severely affected. There are 7–8 million Indians working in the Middle East. The Indian diaspora in the region remits home around US$40 billion a year, which helps India to manage its current account deficit. A fifth of India’s oil and about two thirds of its gas comes from the Middle East. So the security and stability of the region is of paramount importance to India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has established credible ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar and Israel. This self-assured approach will help India to effectively handle the growing opportunities and challenges in the region.
Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj speaking on 5 June asserted that this is an intra-GCC affair and will not have a significant impact on India or on Indians in the region — this is a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.
Travel for Indians to Qatar is unlikely to be directly affected as flights from India take the Persian Gulf route to Doha. But travel for Indians in Qatar to other countries will be severely restricted because of the shutdown of Qatari airspace. And the prices they pay for food and essential commodities could rise sharply — potentially denting remittances.
India’s Petronet LNG buys 8.5 million tonnes a year of liquefied natural gas from Qatar under a long-term contract, and buys additional volumes under spot deals. In the short term, there should be no difficulties for India, but things could change if the crisis is not resolved quickly — India imports over 65 per cent of its gas from Qatar.
Any confrontation or uncertainty in Qatar could have serious adverse implications for India. Beyond a point, India cannot afford not to act. The range and depth of India’s Gulf interests and its rapidly expanding political, economic and strategic profile means that India will have to engage more vigorously with upheavals in this crucial region.
Ashok Sajjanhar is President of the Institute of Global Studies, and is a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.