India’s Tightrope Over Qatar

On Monday, June 5, four countries- Saudi Arabia, Baahrain, the UAE and Egypt announced they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar. Diplomats from Qatar were given two days to leave, other private citizens, two weeks. The four countries also severed air and sea links with Qatar. Saudi Arabia sealed off Qatar’s sole land link, the 87-km long border between the two countries.

Just two days earlier, prime minister Narendra Modi landed in Doha for a two-day visit. Modi’s agenda was as normal as could be: Modi focused on economic ties- Qatar being India’s single largest gas supplier- and the well-being of the 630,000 Indian expatriates living there. Several Indian firms are also involved in construction projects for the FIFA World Cup, which Qatar will host in 2022. “I look forward to the various programs that will enhance economic & people -to-people ties between India & Qatar,” Modi proclaimed in an anodyne tweet.

The prime minister had barely left Qatar when the four nations cut ties. Also joining them was Yemen, which survives on Saudi sufferance and more troubling for India, Maldives, which has also grown increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabia.

So far, the Indian government has responded adroitly. On June 6, Sushma Swaraj was quick to lay out the Indian position. “There is no challenge arising out of this for us. This is an internal matter of GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Our only concern is about Indians there. We are trying to find out if any Indians are stuck there,” she said. Swaraj added that “if there is one region with whom India has uniformly excellent relations, it is the Gulf”.

It’s important India continues to maintain its distance amid this stand-off, assuring non-interference and benevolence towards all. Saudi Arabia remains a major source of crude oil. It’s also, depending on the situation, a key source of and restraint on religious extremism.

Qatar too is a highly unusual state. It’s a tiny peninsula of less than 12,000 square kilometres, with a native population of about 300,000 that enjoys a per capita GDP of $129,00 and a much less wealthy expat population of around 1.8 million. More importantly, the small clique of elites who run the kingdom have managed to forge an independent identity and foreign policy. As Mahran Kamrava points out, Qatar wields an influence in the Middle-East that is far out of proportion for its size. For India, it’s important to maintain a genial, no-drama transactional relationship with this maverick kingdom.

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