With several Arab nations breaking off their ties to Qatar for its alleged support of terrorism, there is growing concern in India over the fate of hundreds of thousands of Indians living there. Murali Krishnan reports.
Mariamma Sebastian, 65, has regularly been on the phone for the last three days enquiring about the safety of her two sons, Thomas and Isaac, who are employed as construction workers in Doha. They left the coastal town of Kozhikode in southern Kerala state two years ago to work for the construction projects related to the 2022 football World Cup Qatar is scheduled to host.
“For now, they are safe. But I am concerned and hope the situation normalizes. They send money regularly and I hope nothing happens to them,” Sebastian told DW.
In Kerala’s commercial capital Kochi, Pullikose Mathew, a retailer, has also been on tenterhooks. He says his nephew Samuel, who works as a technician in the Middle Eastern country, is worried. “He has had a good job so far. But this crisis is something we never anticipated. I hope all turns out well,” Pullikose told DW from Kochi.
Like Mariamma and Pullikose, there are thousands of families from Kerala and other parts of India who are concerned by the rapid flow of events shaking the Middle East.
Paying close attention
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, along with some other Arab countries, severed their ties with Qatar on Monday, accusing Doha of backing Islamist groups and their archrival Iran. Qatar has denied the allegations.
They have also cut air, sea and land links with the tiny, gas-rich nation, thus making it extremely tough to ship goods in and out of Qatar.
Countries like the US and Kuwait have called on the squabbling parties to remain united and work toward easing the tensions. Their appeals do not seem to have produced the desired result, as reports suggest that the Saudi-led coalition is apparently mulling imposing an economic embargo on Qatar, which relies on imports for most goods.
Isolated incidents of panic buying to stock up on essential commodities have been reported in the local media.
The problems affecting Qatar are being closely watched in India.
One of the richest nations in the world in per capita terms, Qatar has a small population of about 2.7 million people. Indian expatriates residing there account for the largest segment of the population, with the size of the community estimated to be around 650,000 or about a quarter of the total inhabitants. In fact, Indians outnumber native Qataris by almost 2 to 1.
Many Indians in Qatar are employed as technicians, electricians, construction workers, drivers and domestic help. They send huge sums of remittances – worth billions of dollars – to India annually.
It’s therefore unsurprising that calls have been growing for the Indian government to intervene and ensure the safety of Indian nationals living in Qatar. Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has written letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj seeking their intervention.
PM Modi’s administration has so far tried to downplay the situation. “There is no challenge arising out of this for us. This is an internal matter of the Gulf Cooperation Council and it has happened earlier also. Our only concern is about Indians there. We are trying to find out if any Indians are stuck there,” said Foreign Minister Swaraj.
“I don’t think India has any stakes in the crisis,” Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian diplomat, told DW. “But we have to be concerned about our citizens,” he added.
The Indian Embassy in Qatar has issued an advisory assuring the Indians of their safety. “The embassy of India is monitoring the situation closely and is in touch with the Qatari authorities to ensure the safety and security of Indian nationals in Qatar,” the advisory read.
Indian authorities insist the current crisis is precipitated by conflicts within the Gulf Cooperation Council and there’s nothing for Indians to worry about at the moment. “If push comes to shove, ministers from the foreign ministry will be sent to douse the situation. But we don’t see that scenario unfolding,” a senior foreign ministry official told DW.
The crisis, if not resolved soon, could also impact trade ties between India and Qatar. Bilateral commerce is worth over $8 billion and several Indian companies and banks have presence in the country. 14 Indian schools also operate in Qatar, educating over 30,000 Indian students.
The businesses are likely to see their operational costs rise as a result of the economic damage from the dispute. India’s airlines are already feeling the pinch as they face higher costs from having to fly planes in a circuitous route over Pakistan and Iran to reach Qatar.