With Strong Ties Across Region, Sushma Swaraj Says Qatar-Gulf Crisis Not a Challenge for India

The external affairs minister claimed that “if there is one region with whom India has uniformly excellent relations, it is the Gulf”.

New Delhi: While terming the current ruptures between Qatar and other Gulf nations an “internal matter,” external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said India was mainly concerned about the Indians who may get stranded due to the snapping of diplomatic and transportation links between the countries.

“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,” Swaraj said at the annual media conference of the Ministry of External Affairs.

She added that the Indian missions in the region were trying to find out that if any Indians were stranded there. “If we found anyone in need, we will get them back to India,” she said.

On Monday, in the worst diplomatic crisis engulfing GCC in recent times, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Egypt announced the snapping of diplomatic ties with Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and ties with Iran.

The four countries have given 48 hours to Qatari diplomats and 14 days to Qatari citizens to leave their territory. Saudi Arabia has also banned all Qatari planes from landing in the kingdom, with all countries cutting road and air links. UAE-owned airlines Etihad Airways and Emirates also suspended flights to Doha.

Along with the four big Arab countries, Yemen and the Maldives have also snapped diplomatic relations with Qatar. The Maldives has become heavily dependent on Saudi funds, especially after being isolated by the West over its crackdown on opposition parties.

Swaraj seemed to be sanguine that there will not be a major flare-up and said that there had been a similar crisis earlier. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had suspended relations with Qatar for eight months over the latter’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsoring Al Jazeera news.

Swaraj said that “if there is one region with whom India has uniformly excellent relations, it is the Gulf”. She said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally cultivated ties with Gulf rulers, which allowed for Indians stranded in the region to be airlifted from war zones, as was seen in Yemen.

With around 600,000 Indians in Qatar, total remittances from Qatar to India were over $4.2 billion, as per the World Bank Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016. India will have its hand full if the current crisis drags on and there are further transportation embargoes put on the peninsular nation. However, Indian officials did seem certain that there was no need to press the panic button yet.

While Qatar has a land border with Saudi Arabia, which has been shut down, most of the country is surrounded by the waters of the Persian Gulf.

Just like with other Gulf countries, there have been multiple visits between India and Qatar in the last three years. The Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani – currently in the crosshairs of the Gulf royals – had visited India in March 2015, and Modi visited Doha in June 2016. The last high-level visit was by the Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al-Thani in December.

While political relations have improved despite some gaps over its Afghan policy, India’s trade volume with Qatar has dropped sharply from $16.68 billion in 2013-14 to $9.93 billion in 2015-16. Since the balance of trade is heavily in favour of Qatar, the drop in value was mainly due to the low international price of oil and gas.

India imports 65% of its LNG supply from Qatar, the largest supplier of natural gas in the world. Most of these are through long-term contracts between India’s Petronet and Qatar’s RasGas. Therefore, price fluctuations due to the current crisis are not likely to have much impact.

According to experts quoted by Reuters, the diplomatic spat is unlikely to hit LNG supplies from Qatar to the rest of the world. However, since the UAE and Egypt are major clients of Qatari LNG, they could be more vulnerable to leverage if Doha decided to use a tit-for-tat approach.

While Qatar is New Delhi’s LNG supplier, Saudi Arabia remains one of the largest source of crude for the energy-hungry Indian economy – demonstrating the need for deft diplomacy by India’s leadership.

Swaraj stressed that India had good relations across factions in volatile West Asia. “…We are also friends with those who are opposed to each other – like Palestine and Israel and Iran and Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Speaking in Hindi, Swaraj pointed to the two ministers of states sitting on either side of her on the dais as being the key foot soldiers for India’s Gulf policy. “I have divided work very carefully. Field ka kaam, general ko diya (pointing of retired general V.K. Singh), charcha ka kaam journalist ko (waving her hand towards M.J. Akbar),” she said.

Swaraj was referring to the division of responsibility, wherein Singh is usually sent to the Gulf if there was any labour crisis, while Akbar holds the fort during bilateral discussions.

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