It is tempting to see the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) diplomatic offensive against Qatar as a rerun of earlier spats in West Asia. That seems to be the understanding behind New Delhi’s cautious reaction to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Yemen cutting off ties as well as transport to Qatar, sparked by an alleged statement of support for Iran by its Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Expressing concern for the over six lakh Indian workers in Qatar, Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, while asserting that the current row was an internal matter for the GCC, said that New Delhi is “trying to assess who and how many are stuck in the middle, and then we will move”. Securing the Indian diaspora in the Gulf is, of course, of paramount importance. New Delhi must, however, look at the current crisis, and West Asia and North Africa as a whole, from a broader prism than just Indian labour in the region.
The latest developments are symptomatic of a structural change in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia’s worries about Iran’s influence evidently sharpening. Since the “Arab Spring”, the Iran-Saudi rivalry has been playing out in civil wars, diplomatic manoeuvrings and internal conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Egypt. Against this backdrop, Qatar has often tried to play all sides: It was the only GCC country to support the Muslim Brotherhood — which has officially sworn off violence but is still accused of terrorism by many in the GCC — sided with Turkey in the Syrian civil war, and is perceived to be backing Iran. For the Sunni-ruled countries of the GCC, that has serious implications — Bahrain, for example, has a restive Shia majority ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Qatar is also a US ally and houses arguably its most important military base in the region. President Donald Trump’s reversal of his predecessor’s policy of relative non-interference has not helped.
The situation in West Asia only looks to be escalating if the serial attacks in Tehran, for which the Islamic State has taken responsibility, are any indication. The pressure on Qatar seems to be aimed at changing its policy direction, making it fall in line with Saudi interests. If Iran intervenes or the royal family feud continues, Delhi should be prepared to evacuate its people. Over the longer term, India can’t continue with a mercantilist approach to the Gulf. The region’s salience to India’s strategic and energy concerns demand a deeper engagement.