With an angry Saudi Arabia, along with some other Gulf countries, cutting off ties with Qatar on Monday over alleged support to Islamists and Iran, the regional power play in West Asia has put India in a spot.
With 7 million Indians in the Gulf (6 lakh in Qatar), India now has to navigate the faultlines in the region. Sources told The Indian Express that if the situation worsens, both Ministers of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, General (retired) V K Singh and M J Akbar, could be despatched with the interlocutors to these countries.
Hours after the diplomatic row broke out, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj underlined Delhi’s non-interfering position and played down its impact on India, saying that India has good ties with all regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, many thought that the West Asian region would not be our priority since they comprise Muslim-majority countries. But today, if there is one region where India has best relations, it is the West Asian region,” she said.
Stressing that this is an “internal issue” of the GCC countries, Swaraj said the only worry is about Indian nationals who may be caught in between the rival countries, as they have put travel bans on Qatar. “We are trying to assess who and how many are stuck in the middle, and then we will move,” she said.
While Delhi does not want to interfere, she said it will not impact India’s relations with these countries. For now, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain are on one side, while Qatar and Iran are on the other side of the divide.
Although it has deftly engaged the regional players over the last three years, it will be interesting to watch how the Modi government will respond to the challenges posed by the warring countries.
Over the last three years, Modi has visited UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, while UAE’s Crown Prince visited India as the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations this year. Modi hosted the Palestinian President last month, and is headed to Israel early next month.
This has meant closer strategic ties between India and these West Asian countries, which have traditionally been closer to Pakistan. In recent years, the enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia and UAE, in particular, has yielded rich dividends, as all of them have been able to intercept and send back people with links to the Islamic State.
Saudi and the UAE were among the few countries which recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Qatar had facilitated talks with Taliban by allowing them to open an office in Doha.
As India’s strategic and security interests are intertwined with its relations with these West Asian countries, it will be difficult for India to choose sides. Also, India’s energy dependence on West Asia is very high — estimates suggest India depends on Gulf countries for almost half of its energy needs — both in oil and gas sector.
A turmoil in the Gulf, as was witnessed during the Gulf war, Arab Spring, war in Yemen, Libya crisis, has always had the tendency to adversely impact the flow of energy from the region to India.
An immediate issue which India will face will be the movement of workers in the region, as Qatar Airways will find itself isolated after the Saudi-led alliance’s decision to impose a travel ban. Many Indians use Qatar Airways — estimates suggest about 24,000 per week — to travel to Doha and other places in the region. This will be a big challenge for the Indian government to navigate, sources said.
And, if Indian workers in the region, who send remittances worth over US$ 60 billion, are caught in the crossfire, the image of the Modi government — which takes pride in rescuing Indians in distress (Swaraj put the figure at 80,000 in the last three years) — will be severely hit.
“The External Affairs Minister has already tasked all Indian ambassadors in the region to get a sense of how many Indians may be affected and stranded due to the current diplomatic standoff in the region. Once that assessment is done, we will send officials and, if need be, will send General Singh and Minister Akbar for rescue missions,” a top government source told The Indian Express.