With four Arab nations cutting their diplomatic ties from Qatar for fostering terrorism, West Asia is headed into a major turmoil in the coming days.
Travel within the region from Doha, the capital of Qatar, is likely to be impossible in the immediate future. Qatari citizens resident in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been given two weeks to return to their home country. Bahrain has also asked Qatari diplomats to leave its territories in 48 hours, though Saudi will continue its services to Qatari pilgrims.
As the exodus of Qatari citizens takes place, more upheavals are expected in the coming days, including job vacancies and a rush to fill them. However, one of the most significant communities living in the Arab world to be affected by the move would be Indians, especially those who are resident in Qatar.
Although external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj underplayed the possible impact of this geopolitical shift on India in general, and on Indians in the Gulf in particular, there are reasons enough to be concerned.
Between 650,000-700,000 Indians are estimated to be living in Qatar—that's nearly twice the number of native Qataris. Almost half of the Indian population is from Kerala. Understandably, Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the southern state, has already written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to ensure the safety of these non-resident Indians (NRIs).
NRIs from the Arab nations send back massive sums back to India annually, as much as $63 billion according to last year's numbers. A large number of those resident in Qatar are there on contract to work for the FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by the country in 2022.
Labour conditions in Qatar have been under intense criticism over the years. Some live to tell their tales of horror, many others succumb to their sufferings.
As many as 112 Indian nationals have died so far in Qatar this year, while the number of Indian nationals in the Central Prison and the Deportation Centre currently are 194 and 88 respectively. The Indian embassy in Qatar has issued 42 emergency certificates to Indians seeking repatriation in May 2017 alone. A few weeks ago, a carpenter working at a football stadium for the FIFA world cup died of a heart attack. Although the cause of his demise was allegedly not related to the work he did, there is no way of ascertaining this claim as Qatar doesn't allow autopsies, unless there's a clear reason to suspect foul play.
Trade and travel
In spite of the tales of exploitation, abysmal work and living conditions, as well as inhuman treatment by some employees, Indians still make a beeline for Arab nations like Qatar in the quest of a better life.
But apart from the migrant workers, India is economically tied to Qatar in other crucial ways.
The size of the annual bilateral trade between the two countries is as much as $18 billion. Qatar is the biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to India. Qatar exports 15% of its output to India, which, in turn, amounts to 65% of India's global import of LNG. India also imports ethylene, propylene, ammonia, urea and polyethylene from Qatar, making it the third largest export destination for Qatar, after Japan and South Korea.
Several Indian business like Punj Lyod, Voltas, Wipro and HCL have offices in Qatar, while banks like ICICI and SBI have branches there. About 30,000 Indian students study there in 14 schools affiliated to the CBSE curriculum.
Qatar is also on the aviation route for many flights departing from India for Europe and America. While flights from Doha to the Gulf countries will not operate for a while, those between India and the Qatari capital will not be affected. However, with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain closing their airspace for the flights departing from Qatar, travel time for many flights will increase by an hour or two. That means there will also be a proportionate increase in the fares to adjust with the additional aviation fuel required for these journeys.
Three Indian carriers—Jet Airways, Indigo and Air India Express—apart from Qatar Airways fly between Doha and Indian cities (Delhi, Calicut, Kochi, Mangalore and so on). Since flights leaving from Delhi pass through Pakistani airspace, they won't be affected. For all the rest, there will be increase in flying time and fares.
In spite of repeated assurance of the government, people in Qatar have gone into panic mode, buying up provisions, especially food and medicine, fearing a blockade of supplies from the Saudi.
Indian officials still insist the current crisis is precipitated by conflicts within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and there's nothing for Indians to worry at the moment. However, a source told The Indian Express that ministers of state in the ministry of external affairs, VK Singh and MJ Akbar, could be dispatched to Qatar, should the situation worsen and requires a direct diplomatic intervention.
The external affairs ministry, under the leadership of Swaraj, has functioned commendably to save the lives of many Indians in distress. It is expected to step in to resolve the crisis that is brewing in Qatar as well.
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