Qatar Diplomatic Crisis and its Implications for India

Introduction

Qatar is a small constitutional monarchy in the Middle East, with Sunni ethnic orientation. It is led by the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, whose family has ruled the country for almost two centuries.
Qatar holds the world’s fourth-largest oil and natural gas reserves and enjoys the world’s highest per-capita income. This enormous wealth is distributed amongst a very small population of 2.2 million people, most of whom are foreign expats.
Qatar is a fairly liberal and cosmopolitan country. Just to highlight this fact, it may be noted that the nation was chosen as the setting for the 2022 World Cup.
In a dramatic development on 05 June 2017, displaying a clear rupture in ties between the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates cut off all diplomatic ties, as well all travel and trade relations with Qatar.
The primary reason for this unprecedented action appears to be Qatar’s individualistic foreign policy which is not in line with the other fellow Sunni countries of the region, especially the regional Sunni heavy-weight Saudi Arabia.
Though, Qatar has actively participated in the fight against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen and for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Yet, Qatar is also a friendly country with Shiite heavy-weight and arch rival of Saudi Arabia in the region, Iran.
It is known to have been supporting the hardcore militant organisations like the Hezbollah, Hamas and their political wing, the Muslim Brotherhood which is the reason being ascribed by Saudi Arabia and other nations for their action.
Events Leading up to the Present Diplomatic Crisis
Qatar is a member of a regional intergovernmental political and economic union called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consisting of the Arab states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Emir of Qatar as a declared foreign policy supported the rebel protesters, during the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, who stood up in arms against the autocratic rulers of various Arab nations, like, Egypt, Libya Tunisia, Syria, etc.
Qatar used its powerful propaganda organ, the state-owned TV network, ‘Al-Jazeera’ for this purpose.
After the Arab Spring faded and the rebels were replaced by the jihadist, Qatar continued with its divergent foreign policy of supporting these new movements with its media and funds. The fellow Sunni states loathed and feared their approach.
Adding fuel to fire, as the Sunni–Shiite wars intensified, Qatar moved closer to the leading Shiite government in Iran. In the eyes of his fellow Sunnis’, the Emir of Qatar’s strategy looked more and more like a ploy to bring down their regimes and to expand his own power.
Qatar has also allowed the Afghan Taliban to set up a political office inside the country.
In fact, even during the regime of the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar sought to carve out a unique niche for itself with its policies, such as augmenting relations with Israel and rejecting the wider consensus on many occasions of the regional group of the monarchies, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).
In March 2014, a similar crisis had emerged, when the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia fell out with Qatar over its backing of the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had that time too recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over the rift.
However, the diplomatic relations resumed eight months later when Qatar forced some Brotherhood members to leave the country.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to the hereditary rule and accuse Qatar of betraying the “true Salafi path”. Salafism is an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam, which advocates a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors”.
Though, Qatar hosts the Middle East’s largest US military base, including the headquarters of Central Command’s air combat centre, called the Al-Udeid Airbase which is home to 10,000 American troops, the relationship between the two countries has never been very cordial.
United States has accused Qatar of allowing or even encouraging funding of Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.
It may be noted that the present row comes only two weeks after the US President, Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East, where he sealed major defence contracts with Saudi Arabia worth $110bn, proposed to set up an anti-extremist institute in Riyadh and urged the Gulf States to build-up an alliance against Iran.
Trump’s visit appears to have served as a trigger and his speech seems to have emboldened the main Sunni powers not only to step up their confrontation with Iran and its “proxies” but also to cut off Qatar.
Consequences of the Crisis
Qataris living and working in UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been ordered to leave these countries within two weeks.
Qatar has been removed from the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen over its alleged support to ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Maldives and the government based in eastern Libya (which rejects its UN-backed rival in Tripoli) also cut ties with Qatar.
Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier and Emirates the Dubai-based carrier, both suspended all flights to and from Doha starting 06th June, forenoon. Egypt announced that its airspace will be closed to all Qatari airplanes.
Consequently, Qatar Airways, one of the region’s major long-haul carriers, also suspended all its flights to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and the remaining three Arab countries blocked Qatar media and closed down Qatar TV, Al-Jazeera’s office in their countries.
Kuwait and Oman are the only two Gulf Cooperation Council members remaining with ties to Qatar.
Implications for Qatar
The major source of revenue for Qatar is the export of oil and natural gas. Qatar is a member of the exporters’ group, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the dispute could undermine the organisation’s efforts to raise prices by restricting production.
Qatar is the world’s biggest supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Egypt and UAE are the key recipients. Although Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have all closed transport links with Qatar, the state can still ship out both LNG and oil to other countries by sea.
The impact of the sanctions resulted in Qatari stock market to tumble and oil prices momentarily rose.
Qatar shares land border only with Saudi Arabia and relies on it for 40 percent of its food products. Hence, long queues were seen outside grocery stores in the capital city of Doha on the day of the crisis. Iran immediately responded by sending food shipments to Qatar.
The closure of border with Saudi Arabia will also block movement of construction materials required for the energy industry and for the preparations for the 2022 football world cup.
More than half of the country’s workers come from other countries in the region and as part of the sanctions; they have now been called home, which will create a serious shortage of skilled and unskilled workers in Qatar.
The Qatar government reassured its citizens that it has already taken all necessary steps to ensure that normal life continues, including keeping sea ports open for trade and making sure that air space with countries not involved in the boycott remained open.
Further, the government took a decision that it would not expel the 300,000 Egyptians working in Qatar as a reprisal.
Implications for India
India has robust defence and energy ties with Qatar. India happens to be the third largest export destination for Qatar (behind Japan and South Korea) and ranks at 10th position for Qatar’s imports.
The population of Indians living and working in Qatar is estimated to be over 6.5 lakh, out of which three lakh are from Kerala alone. This Indian population in Qatar is almost twice the number of native Qataris in the country.
The de-facto imposition of a food blockade by Saudi Arabia may result in shortage of food supplies in the weeks to come. However, there seems to be no crisis situation emerging as the Qatar government has claimed that it is well prepared for such an eventuality.
The exodus of workers from six Arab countries is being seen as an opportunity for Indian workers, who could fill their places.
Though India does not import any oil from Qatar, it is majorly dependent on it for the supply of natural gas, as 90% of its LNG requirements are being imported from Qatar.
Qatar allayed all fears of disruption of supplies by informing the Indian government that the 8.5 million tonne supply deal with Petro net LNG will continue uninterrupted.
The crisis did affect about six LNG vessels linked to Qatar, which were anchored in the Fujairah zone of UAE, which has barred all vessels coming to or from Qatar using its popular anchorage point off Fujairah.
As a result of air space restrictions imposed on Doha by the above said countries, Indians travelling to and from Qatar may have to re-route their travel to these countries with multiple stops.
Lastly, the diplomatic crisis may affect Indian investments temporarily, e.g. Larsen & Turbo (L&T) in March 2014 had won a QR 2.1 billion road project in Qatar and also it has secured a $740 million order from Qatar Railways for the design and construction of rail line for Doha Metro project.
On the whole, there will be no major ripple effect of the ongoing diplomatic crisis for India.
Conclusion
In case Qatar gets pressurised by Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni countries to completely come into the Sunni camp, the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide may become even more pronounced.
The positive impact of the same will be that the Islamist fighters from ISIS and other extremists’ outfits in the region will be denied overt support from Qatar.

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