Doha’s resilience

Print edition : February 14, 2020

At the opening session of the Doha Forum, in Doha, Qatar, on December 14, 2019. Photo: REUTERS

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, addressing the opening session of the Doha Forum. Photo: MUSTAFA ABUMUNES/AFP

The Lusail Stadium under construction in Doha. India won a share of the 2022 FIFA World Cup infrastructure work, with L&T leading the pack. Photo: Getty Images

Qatar has suffered economically owing to the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, but it has responded to threats with diplomatic maturity. There are now signals that both countries are seeking a resolution.

ON a visit to Doha to attend the Doha Forum held on December 14-15, 2019, I saw the phenomenal progress the city has made since 1996 when I left after completing my four-year term as India’s Ambassador to the State of Qatar. The city has been beautified, and the museum that opened in 2018 is flawlessly designed; one learns a lot about geography, geology and evolution there.

Another significant change is the sharp fall in the average age of the Ministers. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is 39 years old. The Ministers who attended the Doha Forum spoke well. Tough questions on the treatment of foreign labour engaged in the preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup were addressed adroitly, projecting a proactive mindset to set things right. Qatar has done a lot to improve the lot of workers, but the Minister admitted that much more needed to be done and assured the interlocutor that it was a work in progress. What is welcome is the positive approach as many governments in a similar situation might have denied there was a problem. The motto of the Doha Forum, namely, Diplomacy, Dialogue, and Diversity, is more than a motto.

The Doha Forum

It was the 10th year of the Doha Forum. Over 1,200 delegates from 102 countries were invited and the logistics were flawless. The theme was “The guiding principles for better governance in a multipolar world”. The papers, prepared in collaboration with the New York-based Stimson Center, were a study in refreshingly original analysis.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani emphasised the need for dialogue in sorting out the differences between or among countries before they got out of hand. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a similar point. The 94-year-old leader was practically grilled by the Al Jazeera anchor Mehdi Hasan. When he was specifically asked about his retirement plans, Mahathir Mohamad made it clear that there were none.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke of the contagious “cognitive disorder” that makes some leaders think that singly or along with a few others they can dictate to the rest of the world. He also talked about HOPE (Hormuz Peace Endeavour), a proposal for regional cooperation on the lines of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Obviously, unless there is a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, one cannot be too hopeful about HOPE.

I raised two issues. There was much discussion about multipolarity ignoring the elephant in the room, the unipolarity in international finance, enabling the U.S. to slap sanctions right and left, with hardly any justification. Noting the genocide that the U.S.-sponsored United Nations sanctions caused in Iraq, and the pain and suffering being inflicted on Iranians now, I asked: Was such unipolarity good for the U.S., for the rest of the world, and if not, what should be done to end it? The President of the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson Center, to whom the question was addressed, chose not to answer.

The other issue was about the Saudi Arabia-led war on Yemen. Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015 to restore the rule of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had sought refuge in Riyadh after he was overthrown in January 2015. Obviously, the storm has been far from decisive. Saudi Arabia has been chasing recklessly the mirage of military victory, seemingly oblivious to the huge humanitarian crisis it has caused. When can we expect Riyadh to stop chasing the mirage? I did not get a clear answer. Was there a reluctance on the part of the panelists to avoid talking truth to Saudi power?

The blockade of Qatar

The unjust and unnecessary blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies (the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and others) starting from June 2017 was not on the agenda. For good and sufficient reasons, the host government avoided a discussion on such a delicate matter. However, some of the delegates discussed the issue in private. There was consensus that Riyadh had miscalculated; it had wrongly assessed that within a week or two Qatar would apologise. Riyadh had failed to assess correctly the resilience of Qatar; its population, both nationals and immigrants, rallied behind the Emir. A portrait of the Emir displayed in various places attracted thousands of signatures.

Qatar worked hard to reduce its dependence on imports from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. For example, milk was being imported. Qatar imported cows and now produces enough for its consumption. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE denied Qatar Airways entry into their airspace, Qatar turned to Iran, and Qatar Airways addressed the crisis successfully.

The main demand of the isolators was that Qatar should close down Al Jazeera, and “stop funding terrorism”. It is necessary to go back in time. Al Jazeera (The Peninsula) was started in 1996 when I was in Qatar. In 1995, the BBC and a Saudi company decided to start an Arab language television channel as a joint venture, with the company providing the money and the BBC retaining editorial control over the programme. It worked for a while, but the Saudi company found fault with BBC’s coverage of developments in the Arab world and wanted to have a say in the matter. The BBC refused, the joint venture was dissolved, and the journalists, mainly former BBC staff, found themselves jobless. Doha spotted a chance and started Al Jazeera, employing the same journalists. The channel has been covering developments in the Arab world, especially the Arab Spring from 2011 onwards, not always in a manner approved by Riyadh. Al Jazeera gives quality coverage and now has about 40 million viewers, including decision-makers in government and scholars following the developments in the Arab world and the rest of the world. The channel is not occident-centred as compared to some other international channels.

The charge that Qatar is funding terrorism is absurd. Qatar has supported and funded the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammad Morsi won the first ever democratically conducted election in Egypt. A democratic Egypt was seen as a threat by the Saudi and UAE monarchies. They supported and funded the partly manufactured agitation against Morsi calculated to facilitate a military coup carried out by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was once military attache in Riyadh. El-Sisi branded the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The Egyptian security forces under his command massacred supporters of Morsi who were protesting peacefully at al-Nahda Square and Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013, six weeks after el-Sisi kidnapped Morsi. In fact, the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation.

During a conversation with Al Jazeera authorities, I was told that in the first few hours after the blockade was announced on June 5, 2017, they feared a missile attack on their headquarters.

Qatar responded adroitly to the blockade, displaying diplomatic maturity. It did not use harsh words against Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. It refrained from deporting thousands of Egyptians working in Qatar though Egypt had with alacrity joined the blockade. Qatar did not stop the delivery of gas to Dubai. For without the gas, the UAE would have faced serious power shortages. A month after the blockade began, Qatar signed an agreement with the U.S. to “combat terrorism financing”.

Initial efforts by Kuwait and others failed to lift the blockade. There are now signals that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are seeking a resolution. The Qatari Prime Minister represented the Emir at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit held in Riyadh recently. However, the Emir’s participation in the meeting held in Malaysia on December 19, 2019, might not have helped. Saudi Arabia compelled Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to skip the meeting.

In the final analysis, Qatar has suffered economically and so have Saudi Arabia and the UAE. We have not come across any published studies on the economic impact of the deplorable blockade on GCC member states. It is not important to figure out who has lost more. It is important to restore sanity and repair the GCC. In fact, to my mind, there is need for an expanded GCC that would include Iran, Iraq and Yemen. For a while, the GCC was known as 1+5, marking the preponderance of Saudi Arabia. The expanded GCC will not have that problem.

India-Qatar economic relations

In 1996, the Indian community in Qatar was 85,000-strong. Now it is nine times larger. The Indian Embassy’s work has grown by leaps and bounds. India did get a share of the 2022 FIFA World Cup infrastructure work, with L&T leading the pack. Turkey came to the rescue of Qatar by sending a few troops to a military base in Qatar immediately after the blockade. Turkish companies, at times working with Chinese companies, have contracts for a good part of the construction work.

India’s investment footprint in Qatar has expanded in a big way. The Indian Embassy has identified about 6,500 Indo-Qatari joint ventures. Twenty-six Indian companies have taken up big projects. They include L&T, Dodsal, Punj Lloyd, Shapoorji Pallonji, Voltas, Tata Motors, Simplex, TCS, Wipro, Tech Mahindra, Aptech and NIIT, with offices in Qatar.

The Embassy was good enough to list investments in India by the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA)). The total works out to $2.9 billion, less than 1 per cent of the QIA’s holding estimated at $300 billion by Moody’s. Qatar, a diligent investor, exited from Bharti Airtel after four years with a profit of over 17 per cent. The original investment was $1.26 billion. Obviously, India needs to do more to get investment from Qatar. The Embassy arranged for me to have an interactive session with the Kerala Business Forum, a group of dynamic entrepreneurs. We discussed opportunities in Kerala’s InfoPark in Kochi and elsewhere.

Ambassador P. Kumaran summed up the bilateral trade for me: India imports liquefied natural gas worth $10.5 billion and exports goods worth $2 billion. Remittances from Qatar amount to $4.2 billion.

The Indian community

The Indian community has blossomed. Nilangshu Dey’s book The Indian Odyssey in Qatar narrates the story in detail. Doctors, engineers, accountants, information technology and other professionals from India are highly esteemed in Qatar. Sixty-five per cent of Indians are blue-collar workers. Qatar has recognised the good work and dedication of a number of Indians. Some have been given permanent residence. Recently, Dr Mohan Thomas from Kerala, who came more than three decades ago, has got a licence to start a hospital, the first time a foreigner has been given such a licence. Many new schools have come up. The Indian community stood behind the Emir in facing the blockade with dignity and resilience.

It is high time the blockade was lifted. It is necessary for the GCC to heal the self-inflicted wound. The U.S. could have and should have prevented the blockade. Equally, it could have exerted its diplomatic clout to effect a rapprochement between Riyadh and Doha and ended the blockade within days. But, President Donald Trump grabbed the opportunity to sell more weapons to the region in which he does not believe that his country has any permanent interest. Fortunately, the rest of the government does not agree with him.

To conclude on a contemplative note as the second decade of the 21st century begins, I believe that the cognitive disorder diagnosed by Foreign Minister Zarif applies not only to the international arena. It has broken out in a few countries. There is no need to list the countries, at least not for my Indian readers.