THE Arabian Gulf countries are witnessing one of the worst crises in decades over the issue of Qatar allegedly supporting militant groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State. The crisis began last week with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt breaking off diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposing punitive sanctions against it. They have blocked their transport routes with Qatar, including the country’s only land border. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain had withdrawn their envoys from Qatar in protest against its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups operating in Syria. That crisis was resolved following the intervention of other Gulf Cooperation Council members. This time no early solution seems to be in sight. If the crisis is not resolved sooner there is possibility of not only Qataris suffering from the blockade but also a large number of expatriates, including nearly 10,000 Goans living there.
The Qatari regime has been accused of courting Islamists from Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups to achieve its goal of playing a wider role in the Muslim world by destabilizing the region. The immediate provocation for the action by the Saudi Arabia-led alliance appears to be statements purportedly made by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani supporting Muslim Brotherhood and criticising the Sunni coalition against Iran. The alliance has made it clear that their fight was not with Qatar’s regime but its ‘subversive’ policies. Though disputes among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are nothing new, this time around it appears to be far more serious.
The crisis has pitted some of the world’s richest nations against each other. The crisis would have a direct bearing on the economy of the tiny monarchical state of Qatar. Most of Qatar’s food supplies are imported via Saudi Arabia; the blockade will bring shortages and misery to its economy and population. The effect of sanctions was immediately witnessed in the markets, which ran out of stocks of groceries and other items within hours of penalties being imposed. With all borders closed, travel and trade will be severely affected in Qatar, which imports 95 per cent of its foodstuff and other goods from across the world. The foodstuffs and other items stocked by people living in Qatar may not last long in case the crisis is not resolved.
Doha, Qatar’s capital, which has emerged as an international aviation hub, is already witnessing a crisis as UAE has refused to grant visas on arrival for foreigners living in Qatar and allow Qatari nationals to transit through the country. Other nations could also impose such restrictions. In case the crisis continues for a long period, the expatriates in Qatar, who outnumber the locals, would be the worst affected. Reports suggest that Goans working in the tiny peninsular country fear temporary closure of businesses and loss of employment in case the crisis prolongs. Any deterioration of the situation in Qatar in particular and Arabian Gulf in general could lead to mass evacuation of the Indians living there. The closures and disruptions resulting from the breaking of diplomatic ties and imposing of sanctions could force Indians who number around 6.5 lakh in the Gulf countries to return home or face consequences in a state whose economy is likely to be severely affected.
India has no room to play any mediatory role in easing the crisis. Yet, the external affairs ministry must remain alert and prepared to face any situation that could arise in days ahead to protect the interests of Indians working there. India has to do a balancing act in the fight between the Arab nations as it imports 90 per cent of its natural gas from Qatar, while Saudi Arabia is among the top suppliers of oil to this country. India, which enjoys goodwill in the Arab world, will have to use diplomatic channels to protect the interests of Indians. Even as the Saudi Arabia-led alliance hardens its attitude Qatar is looking for avenues to negotiate its way out of the blockade. It has already denied that Qatari emir ever made any statement attributed to him against Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations or in favour of Iran. The sooner Qatar realizes the folly of using Islamic terror groups to become a major power in the Gulf, the better. There are other ways, such as the economic growth route, to establish greater importance in the region despite being small in size. The international climate is against terrorism, no matter how strong and destructive it looks at present, and Qatar would only lose and not gain the world’s sympathy by supporting Islamic extremist and sectarian groups.