Desert storm

India needs to tread carefully in the Qatar–Saudi showdown

The stakes are high for India in the diplomatic faceoff in the Gulf. On one side is a muscular Saudi-led coalition that includes Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt. On the other is tiny Qatar, which supplies 30 per cent of the world’s LNG and boasts of the world’s highest per-capita income. Indians, meanwhile, live all over the region. For starters, there are over three million in Saudi Arabia and two million in the UAE while in Qatar, which is on a building spree for the 2022 Football World Cup, 650,000 Indians work in professional and blue-collar jobs like construction. India is also one of Qatar’s biggest fuel clients.

It all means New Delhi will have to play both sides of the fence carefully in this long-simmering dispute. It’s already stressing its non-interference policy and its good ties with all regional players. At the heart of the latest crisis is the perpetual regional tussle for dominance between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar shares its giant North Gas Fields with Iran and the Saudis have always accused it of being soft on the predominantly Shia nation. For Qatar, there are numerous reasons why it isn’t falling in line with the Saudis. Firstly, it’s managed its riches skilfully and now has a $335-billion investment fund said to control over 20-million-square-feet of London property. Its huge riches and the fact it seems to have managed its treasure chest more successfully, have led it to steer an independent course from the Saudis. Another constant irritant is Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, which is perceived to be free to criticise everyone except the Qataris. Also, the Qataris are seen as soft on the Muslim Brotherhood, which many Gulf states and Egypt call a terrorist organisation. Observers reckon US President Donald Trump encouraged the Saudis to take a tougher line this time round than they might have otherwise — even though the US has one of its largest air base operations outside Doha. Qatar is in a tricky position, because its only land border with Saudi Arabia has been closed. It also depends heavily on Dubai’s Jebel Ali port, a trans-shipment point for goods headed to Qatar. Many Indian businessmen in Qatar will also soon face difficulties because they source from the UAE. And South Indians face long air journeys home to avoid Saudi airspace.

Can Qatar hold out against its powerful enemies? About 40 per cent of its food comes via Saudi Arabia but it’s reckoned to have enough supplies for the moment. Two countries considered relatively neutral are Kuwait and Oman. In 2014, Kuwait played mediator between Qatar and the Saudis. It looks like Kuwait may be called on to play the peacemaker once again. India can only sit tight and hope the conflict gets solved sooner rather than later.

Published on June 08, 2017
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