Modi's Visit to Qatar: Engaging with a Maverick Gulf State

Narendra Modi, who visits Qatar today, will find a country which holds position that resonate with India's interests

File photo of Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani

File photo of Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Doha on Saturday, he could be forgiven if, taken in by the similarity of the landscape and the skyline, he believes that Qatar is just like the two other Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries he has just visited — Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But, beyond the desert sands, the dunes and the steel and glass skyscrapers,

​Qatar​ is a country that stands out​ among its peers for the wide range of its foreign policy engagements, its independent, even contradictory, positions on issues of regional and global concern, and its unique ability to irk its allies and its enemies with equal enthusiasm.

It is difficult to recall a major state it has not offended at some time or the other. In 2002, the state-owned Al-Jazeera television gave an opportunity to Saudi dissidents based in London to pour venom on the Kingdom and even castigate its revered founder, King Abdulaziz. Qatar’s failure to apologise led to the recalling​ of the Saudi ambassador, who only returned to Doha​ in 2009. But soon thereafter, in March 2014, three GCC members, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, withdrew their ambassadors from Doha due to Qatar’s affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood; they only returned eight months later.

Qatar’s diplomatic activism

​Qatar has complex ties with the US as well. ​The US maintains its powerful air force base in Qatar, the Al Udeid base, and Qatar has actively supported US-led campaigns in the region, including the first and second Gulf Wars. But, Qatar also has a Taliban office in Doha, has close ties with Iran, and has excellent relations with both Hamas and Hezbollah. Qatar also drew considerable criticism from its Arab brothers when it welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to Doha in 1996 and permitted the opening of an Israeli trade office in the country; this was closed only in November 2000 in the​ face of widespread regional pressure.

There is hardly any major regional issue with which Qatar is not involved: Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and now  Libya and Syria.​ The Doha Declaration prepared the basis for the agreement in Darfur that reduced tensions, brought stability to that part of Sudan, allowed the return of displaced persons and the commencement of reconstruction. In October 2012, the then Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani visited the Gaza Strip to see a reconstruction project funded by his country, the first Arab leader to do so, earning the ire of Israel and the US that has declared Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, a terrorist organization. Later, in 2014, it was Qatar that secured a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas following the Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of that year.

At first sight, Qatar hardly gives the impression of becoming​ such an active and influential player in international affairs. Ranked 166 in the world in terms of size, Qatar is a peninsula that juts 160  km into the Gulf waters; it has a total area of 11,500 sq metres, a coastline totaling 580 km, and the only land border it has, all of 87 km in length, is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of about two million, of whom 1.5 million are foreigners, who also constitute 95% of the workforce. It also has the highest GDP per capita in the world: in 2014, it was $ 60,800; in PPP terms this amounted to $ 133,562.

Qatar’s principal claim to world attention is that it has the world’s third largest gas reserves, exceeding 900 trillion cubic feet (25 trillion cubic metres), which amount to 14% of global reserves, just behind Russia and Iran. These reserves are located offshore in the North Field that Qatar shares with the South Pars field of Iran. Qatar began robust development of its gas potential in the 1990s; from 1996, it started to export its gas as LNG to markets in Japan and Korea. Today, it is the largest LNG exporter in the world. Qatar supplies India with 7.5 million tonnes annually, which will be augmented by a further one million tonnes from this year.

Affiliation with political Islam

The advent of the Arab Spring saw Qatar in a new incarnation — the principal supporter among the GCC states of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Mohammed Morsi. Besides extending solid political support to the movement and its affiliates across the region, Qatar also provided $ 7.5 billion to Cairo to tide it over the first difficult period. Distancing itself from Saudi Arabia and some of its GCC partners, particularly Bahrain and the UAE, Qatar found a more congenial ally in Turkey, whose government espoused the same affiliation with political Islam that Morsi did.

​Qatar went further: it allied itself with the NATO forces in toppling Qaddafi and since then has backed the Islamist faction in Tripoli against the “secular” regime in Tobruk that has the support of the other GCC states.

But, Syria is the arena where Qatar has been most deeply involved. In early 2011, when Saudi Arabia was supporting the “secular” Free Syrian Army (FSA), Qatar and Turkey were actively behind the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist militia, providing them with weapons, training and logistical support, so that their quality and numbers and success​ far outshone those of the FSA. Hence, Saudi Arabia, alarmed at Brotherhood successes, in 2012, took over control of the opposition movement in Syria, with Qatar and Turkey playing a supporting role.

With the ongoing​ stalemate in Libya and now in Syria, after the Russian intervention, Qatar seems to have realised the folly of alienating the Kingdom: the new Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who took over from his father in June 2013, has worked to bridge the gap with Saudi Arabia by backing the latter’s initiatives in Syria ( such as supporting the Jaish al Fatah [Army of Victory], that includes Islamist and jihadi groups) and joining the Saudi forces in the war against the Houthis in Yemen.

Ties with Iran

These initiatives are of course facilitated by the fact that Saudi Arabia itself, under King Salman, does not exhibit the visceral animosity for the Brotherhood that motivated King Abdullah, and is in fact shaping a role for the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party in Yemen, and may even see the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as part of the “moderate” opposition when the time comes to replace Bashar al Assad in Damascus. To this end, Qatar is said to be keeping intact its links with Islamist militia, some of which have ties with Al Qaeda.

Obviously, coming close to Saudi Arabia has meant that Qatar has had to distance itself from Iran. As relations between the two Islamic giants have deteriorated over the last five years, Qatar has had to tread cautiously between them. Qatar’s shared gas field with Iran has of course been an important factor in drawing them close. But, beyond energy considerations, Doha has been uneasy in its ties with Saudi Arabia: the latter has rarely accepted Qatar’s independent foreign policy forays, which have seemed to dilute the Kingdom’s standing in regional affairs.

​While ​the two countries have very different visions of the region in doctrinal terms, they also disagree on regional security: Doha has firmly believed that Iran has a crucial role to play in shaping Gulf security. Speaking at the UN General Assemblyin September 2015, the Qatari Amir said: “Bilateral relations between Qatar and Iran are growing and evolving steadily on the basis of common interests and good neighborliness.”

Modi in Doha

India’s ties with Qatar have largely been founded on energy and economic links and the presence of the Indian community, which in Qatar numbers over half a million and, as in other GCC countries, is the largest expatriate community in the country. There has been frequent interaction at summit level since 1999, with ​the former Emir making​ no less than three trips to India​;​ the present Emir visited Delhi in 2015, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Doha in 2008.

Modi’s visit will also focus on the economic dimensions of the relationship, which are already quite substantial in terms of trade: India is the third largest destination for Qatar’s exports, and the tenth largest exporter to Qatar. The relationship is anchored in gas supplies to India, with Doha showing considerable accommodativeness (and realism, given the global market scenario) in waiving the “penalty” of $ 1.5 billion on the Indian importer, Petronet, for lifting less than the contracted amount, and then agreeing to provide future supplies at a price that is half the earlier contracted amount.

Beyond energy, both countries have substantial investments in each other’s projects, while major Indian companies are already well-represented in Doha. The visit of the prime minister will certainly take energy and economic ties forward, building up on the agreements signed during the Amir’s visit to India last year.

But, as is clear, Modi is visiting a very interesting country that has some important things to say on regional and global issues. When the present Amir visited Washington in February 2015, while he agreed on the need to combat ISIS and other terrorist groups, he also pointed out that “military solutions are insufficient to defeat terrorism”; he insisted that the “roots of terrorism” needed to be addressed. He identified “hopelessness” as the root cause, hopelessness that pervades the lives of the poor and the deprived in different parts of the world. He then went on to point out that in West Asia, the​ war on terror “is in some cases helping to preserve the bloodstained dictatorships that contributed to its rise”. He then added that political solutions in Syria, Iraq and Palestine took precedence over the fight against ISIS.

Besides the Qatari ruler’s ​interesting​ thoughts on fighting terror, his country has taken positions of regional doctrinal and security issues that merit consideration.  Qatar backs political Islam, but this is an Islam that is at once moderate, accommodative, liberal and forward-looking.

As the Qatari Amir prepared to leave Washington at the end of his visit last year, the US president described Qatar as the country where “peace and security prevail, and [where] people — particularly young people — have the opportunity to learn, to get educated, and to succeed in the modern economy.”

Qatar also rejects the virus of sectarianism that today defines regional contentions, and, in fact, sees a crucial place for Iran in a regional cooperative security arrangement. Its record, irritating to some, has shown that it believes in political plurality; in fact, it is the multiplicity of its relationships that has enabled it to be a constructive role-player in several intractable disputes.

​ The country also deeply cherishes its historic ties with India, and values India as a partner in confronting the complex and contentious challenges in West Asia. Modi’s visit to Doha presents him with the opportunity to talk to an interesting leader whose country is a model of achievement and moderation,​ and who himself espouses positions that resonate with India’s interests. This will further consolidate the ground for India’s diplomatic effort to work with the principal regional partners — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran and Qatar, all of which he has visited in the last year — to bring peace to the region that is today torn by hatred, bigotry and wanton violence.