Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Oman and Qatar, days before his departure for the G20 meeting in Washington, has given India a strategic toehold in the Gulf — two agreements on defence and security have been signed with Qatar, a country that is home to a US naval base. Short of having a permanent station in Doha, India will be ready to go calling whenever Qatari assets need protection.
With this one move, India is signalling to the region its readiness to play a larger-than-before role as it polices the Indian Ocean and the waters up to the Gulf of Aden. The pact allows India to take care of the defence requirements of Qatar, including intelligence sharing and manpower training.
As if to drive home the point about its growing military prowess, the Indian Navy on Tuesday, in its first-ever action after being deployed in the Gulf of Aden, thwarted an attempt by pirates to capture an Indian merchant vessel in the region.
Given the importance of the Indian Ocean due to its sizeable maritime hydrocarbon traffic and the country’s growing stature as an emerging economic power, the deep-reach capability is of strategic significance.
The Indian delegation, comprising three ministers, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia and National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, is learnt to have gone all out to get their Gulf counterparts to wake up to the fact that India is a better place — both in terms of security and returns — to invest in than the west. According to a senior delegate, Oman and Qatar were told that the Indian banking system with certain controls is a better bet than the west.
The PM, on his part, announced the $100 million India Oman Joint Investment Fund with equal equity participation on both sides with an upper ceiling of $1.5 billion for infrastructure projects — telecom, health and urban infrastructure. Meanwhile, negotiations are at an advanced stage to spell out the modalities for a $5 billion fund for Qatar to invest in Indian energy and fertiliser projects. “In the next two-three months, we will work out modalities, identify projects in the areas of energy, power, fertiliser,” Singh told reporters. He said he also discussed the likelihood of Qatar either investing in fertiliser plants in India or expanding production of fertiliser plants in Qatar with assured buyback in India.
Asked about the gloomy economic scenario back home, Singh said, “We are watching the situation on a day-to-day basis. I have set up a committee under my chairmanship headed by the Finance Secretary. If more is needed to stabilise our economy, it will be done. We are committed to provide all possible support and assistance to Indian industry and trade to ensure that Indian economy is least affected by this international economic crisis.”
Singh indicated that the proposed Free Trade Zone between India and the GCC countries could become operational as early as 2009 when Oman would head the GCC. The area where a consensus is yet to be reached is the goods sector.
Asked when would prices of petroleum products be reduced, Singh said there were limitations to subsidies that could be offered and the OMCs were suffering a very heavy burden. “We have to consider the sustainability of the oil companies,” he said.
Responding to another query, he said there was no question of being partial to airline companies as also the upper class since the government had to consider the employment angle if these companies closed down. “It is the duty of the government to help the middle class,” he said.
Asked if he was satisfied with the efforts of the Maharashtra government to rein in Raj Thackeray and the MNS, he said it would not be proper for him to comment on internal matters when he was outside the country.
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