By Ashima Makhija
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar over the country’s support for Islamic extremist groups. These key players of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) were followed by Libya, Yemen and Maldives.
This colossal bombshell is expected to have wide-ranging shock waves, which can reach India. The Gulf nations are home to 8 million Indians and are vital to India’s energy supply. This latest implosion has put forth the challenge of balancing between member states of opposite camps and ensuring the security of the Indians in the Arab states.
Asian markets have a major stake in the petroleum industry and the simmering diplomatic battle between Qatar and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition could impact them severely as they are enormously dependent on Qatar as well as its rivals. Qatar is the largest supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to India, accounting for over 65% of India’s global import and 15% of Qatar’s export of LNG. In 2014-15, India’s exports to Doha crossed the billion-dollar mark to touch $ 1.05 billion and total bilateral trade reached $15.67 billion. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is an important supplier of crude oil for India. In 2015, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were ranked the 3rd and 4th biggest trade partners of India with 49 and 26 billion dollars in trade respectively.
Over the last few years, the BJP government has worked towards strengthening ties with the Gulf countries. PM Narendra Modi had paid a landmark official visit to Doha in June, 2016, when he was invited by HH Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. Over the past three years, PM Modi has visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar. Notably, the UAE’s Crown Prince visited India as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day celebrations this year. Such excellent economic and political relations with the West Asian nations have placed India in a position of eminence. Therefore, its stance on the ‘Gulf boycott of Qatar’ will play a decisive role in future bilateral ties.
Caught in the middle
Sushma Swaraj, the Minister for External Affairs, has said that the rift was an intra-GCC matter and that India’s relations with the Gulf region will remain unaffected. Her speech underlined the country’s non-interfering position. “If there is one region where India has best relations, it is the West Asian region,” she said.
In 2014, a similar diplomatic boycott of Qatar had been organised by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, and its resolution had required eight months. Although this issue has not led to any immediate impact on bilateral trade, it is important to remember that India has intertwined defence, strategic and economic ties with the Arab countries. If this matter escalates further, India will find it very difficult to choose sides and will certainly incur a great loss.
Choosing the right approach
Right now, the greatest cause of concern for the Indian government is the safety of the Indian nationals in Qatar. The 650,000 Indians working and living in Qatar make Indians the largest expatriate community in the country. Even though the officials of the rich Arab state have claimed that normal life will not be disturbed, the land, sea and air blockade of Qatar is expected to cause shortages of essential commodities. Indian authorities are keeping a close watch on food supplies and on the flights in and out Doha in response to the increasing enquiries from Indian nationals about the situation.
Sushma Swaraj said that the government will extend its support if any Indian national is stranded or stuck due to the blockade. Kerala CM, Pinarayi Vijayan has also pressed for effective and urgent steps for the protection of the Indians as 3 lakh of them are Keralites.
Since Qatar is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia for the import of several commodities, the land, sea and air blockade is expected to be brief. However, it is very important for India to maintain its non-interfering stance and to ensure the safety of the Indian nationals in the Arab states. Although there are virtually no short-term losses for India’s trade or security, if this matter continues to grow, then India could potentially lose significant partners. Thus, the best case scenario for India will be a swift end to this boycott.
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