By Girish Linganna
The perception of Qatar’s indelible connections to terrorism persists. As a foreign policy expert succinctly put it: “From a distance, Doha…is becoming synonymous with hosting groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban”.
But, even as a court in Qatar handed death sentences to eight former Indian naval officers—who were staff of a company in that country—on suspicion of espionage charges last week, India is navigating a complex maze of diplomatic intricacies that has raised questions about the multifaceted India-Qatar partnership which persisted over a significant period of time.
In the light of the 2022 detention of the eight former naval officers, India has adopted a stoically cautious approach. And, although Qatar has not publicly disclosed the charges, India has refrained from voicing aggressive public statements or threats (which it rarely does!) Instead, it has taken guarded steps to avoid giving the impression of interfering with Qatar’s judicial proceedings.
Despite its small size—measuring just 160 kilometres from north to south—the wealth of this West Asian nation with a total population of only 2.9 million people has afforded it substantial diplomatic influence. Qatar is a prominent player in the oil and gas industry and its energy exports have generated significant wealth. With a per capita GDP of approximately $82,000 USD, it ranks among the highest in the world.
While nearly 90% of this population comprises foreign migrants who work in Qatar—a substantial number of them (roughly 800,000) of Indian origin—the country is a crucial partner for the US and hosts a significant US military base. It has also supported American military interventions in such regional countries as Libya.
However, Qatar’s relations with other Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, have been challenging, partly due to its support for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe have contributed to regional instability. In 2017, after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan cut off ties with Qatar and initiated a blockade, the crisis was eventually resolved with Qatar using US influence to ease tensions.
On the other side of the globe, Qatar maintains a strong relationship with Pakistan. In 2022, it provided approximately $2 billion to assist Pakistan in addressing its financial crisis. The two countries also share a close military relationship, which has become a factor in the Qatar espionage case.
But, despite these dynamics, Qatar remains important to India and India’s cautious approach to the case can be attributed to several reasons:
India’s substantial reliance on liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports from Qatar—which make up a significant portion of their $15-billion trade relationship—has led to efforts by Indian energy companies to enhance these imports.
The importance of India’s energy ties with Qatar has grown further due to disruptions in energy supplies from Russia following the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Consequently, several European countries are now vying for Qatar’s gas supplies, intensifying the competition for India. This situation also contributes to India’s cautious approach towards maintaining a cordial and affable relationship with Qatar.
Trade in oil occurs on the open market, while trade in natural gas relies on government-to-government agreements. Therefore, geopolitical determinants and maintaining strong bilateral relations play a pivotal role in India’s energy imports.
India has actively sought investments from Qatar, with particular focus on attracting funds from its sovereign wealth fund. The Qatar Investment Authority, for instance, committed $1 billion to invest in Reliance Retail. A sovereign wealth fund is a state-owned investment fund, typically managed by a country’s government, or its central bank. These funds are created to invest in a variety of financial assets—including stocks, bonds, real estate and other investment opportunities—both domestically and internationally.
The primary purpose of sovereign wealth funds is to manage a country’s reserves and generate long-term returns on behalf of the government. These funds are often funded by revenues from such commodities as oil or natural gas, foreign exchange reserves, or other sources of income generated by the government. Sovereign wealth funds can play a significant role in a country’s economic stability and long-term financial planning.
In 2022, former Vice-President of India Venkaiah Naidu estimated that Qatari foreign direct investment (FDI) in India had multiplied five-fold.
According to data provided by the External Affairs Ministry in Parliament, Qatar is home to a significant population of over 800,000 Indians, forming a substantial portion of the foreign migrant labour force in Qatar. These migrant workers have played a crucial role in shaping the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
In retrospect, even when the Qatari court handed down the death sentence to those eight former naval officers, India’s response has remained relatively muted. It has expressed “shock” and mentioned its intention to address the matter with the Qatari authorities. But, apparently, given the significance of bilateral ties, India appears to favour discreet backroom diplomacy over unambiguous, aggressive might. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)