From the Viewsroom

Mending fences in West Asia

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on January 07, 2021

Tiny Qatar held its ground against a Saudi Arabia-led blockade

It was a feud that is now over after three years of stalemate. Tiny Qatar successfully defied the air-sea-and-land blockade imposed on it by the Saudis, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain and didn’t concede to any of the quartet’s demands. Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, says bluntly: “Bilateral relations are mainly driven by a sovereign decision of a country... and by its national interest.”

The row was fuelled at one level by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to establish his country as boss of the Sunni Arab world. Also, the quartet wanted Qatar to cool relations with Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood and close Al Jazeera, accusing the Gulf nation of sponsoring Islamist groups. So, why has peace come at this juncture? Almost certainly because the Saudis realise they needed to patch relations before US President Donald Trump quits office. President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he’s open to the US rejoining the 2015 nuclear accord as long as Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy and key regional rival, abides by the agreement’s terms.

For India, West Asia is a place where we’ve got extremely strong business and people links so any economic benefits from the deal can only be helpful. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was in Qatar in late December and a joint commission is being formed to see how to boost trade, investment and other ties. India imports $11 billion worth of Qatari natural gas and exports goods worth $1.5 billion to the nation of 2 million people.

Some 625,000 Indians live in Qatar, comprising 25 per cent of the population. Another 3.5 million Indians live in Saudi Arabia and 2.3 million in the UAE. The Saudis underestimated Qatar’s enormous financial staying power. The Qatar Investment Authority has an estimated $170 billion in investments including holdings in Airtel Africa, Adani Electricity and Byju’s. When threatened by the blockade, it flew in cows to ensure milk supplies. All this was hugely costly but there were no signs Qatar was unduly stretched. Despite the fence-mending, though, the dispute has engendered a level of regional rancour that will take some time to dispel, those on the ground say.

Published on January 07, 2021

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