Energising the India-Qatar Partnership

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"What this government has been doing in the last few months has been very encouraging. We trust the Indian economy. So we will invest in India", Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar, said to The Times of India during his state visit to India. Andra Dodiță highlights the immense opportunities for collaboration between India and Qatar in railways, defence, infrastructure, retail and LNG terminals that would help expand the countries’ trade relationship beyond energy

It looks like the world’s youngest reigning monarch, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has had a full agenda since the beginning of this year with visits to Japan, the United States as well as Turkey. His latest two-day visit to India is part of a brief three-country South-Asian tour, which also included Pakistan and Sri Lanka, countries whose expatriate communities in Qatar together account for about a third of its total population. The three countries are of high importance for Qatar both because they supply most of the workforce for the various development projects to be undertaken for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as well as due to their potential for investments, especially in the fields of energy, trade and air connectivity.

Of the three visits, the Emir’s visit to India was by far the most important because of the stakes of the bilateral relationship for both countries in the near and more distant future. The two countries have been mutually dependent for years now. India has been providing massive workforce for Qatar’s increasing needs, while Qatar has been supplying 86 percent of India’s liquefied natural gas since the 2012 deal during the visit of former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Current bilateral trade stands at $16 billion, heavily weighted in favour of Qatar due to the LNG imports , while India’s remittances from overseas workers make up an important 3.7 percent of the country’s economy.

Positive Momentum in Bilateral Relations

However, it appears that the labour-LNG based bilateral ties are no longer enough for the young Emir as he is keen to move the relationship beyond labour and energy, further expanding it to trade and investment.

The shift in bilateral relations could be seen as a follow-up after Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani became the Emir of Qatar in June 2013 and after a new government in India in May 2014 raised expectations among investors. Furthermore, it appears that the recent visit is a natural step after Qatar has been observing with growing interest and satisfaction the business and investment initiatives adopted by the new Indian government in the last few months. Consequently, during the visit, the Emir expressed his desire to fill the “gap” in the relations with India and go “beyond good relations” based on the fact that “the new government is taking a number of interesting initiatives. “We trust the Indian economy. So we will invest in India.” One day later, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally extended an invitation to Qatari investors and entrepreneurs travelling with the Emir to look at India’s infrastructure sector and join the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ initiatives.

Besides meetings with several top Indian businessmen and investors as well as heads of major Indian companies and senior officials , a highlight of the visit was the Qatar-India Joint Economic and Business Meeting, where businessmen like Doha CEO Bank R Seetharaman and Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Baker highlighted opportunities for Indian companies in Qatar .

The visit targeted the closing of two major deals that are expected to boost commercial and economic exchanges between the two countries – the “Make in India” initiative and the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The latter has received tremendous attention with around $195 billion worth of projects already commissioned. Qatar has announced that the three key areas of investment in India are railways, defence production and infrastructure development.

Security was another important aspect of the visit, with Qatar offering its inputs on the challenges currently faced by the WANA region. Qatar’s proximity to the Arab Spring, as well as the unrest in Syria, Iraq and Yemen raise its stake to ensure security and stability. Even though it is one of the smallest countries in the world, the energy giant finds itself at the crossroads of some of the region’s biggest security challenges. Qatar plays a pivotal role as it presides over reconciliation talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan-supported Taliban, while also playing an active role in the US-led coalition against ISIS, despite being accused of financing the terror group.

In the recent context with Iran’s nuclear hegemony in the region causing concern , Qatar could seek India’s (nuclear) partnership on security cooperation, especially since Saudi Arabia has Pakistan on its side.

Addressing Concerns of Migrant Labour

Currently, over 90 percent of Qatar’s workforce comprises immigrants. The country is expected to recruit up to 1.5 million more labourers for all the required facilities . In 2013, Indians (a little over 500,000) represented around a quarter of the almost 2 million population of the small country, while Qatari nationals only accounted for 12 percent . Most Indians working in Qatar are engaged in unskilled and semi-skilled work and belong to low or lower-middle income groups, with some exceptions such as managers, doctors and engineers . Official figures made public during the Emir’s visit show that the largest expat community in Qatar has surged to 631,000 Indians.

Reports published at the beginning of 2015 indicated that 1000 Indians have died in Qatar in the last four years, at a rate of 20 fatalities each month. Similar figures were revealed by the Nepalese embassy in Qatar, showing an increase in deaths from “unnatural” heart failure . Nepalese are the single largest group of labourers in Qatar outnumbering Qatari nationals by five percent. The tiny rich Gulf state has been facing heightened scrutiny and criticism from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International for migrant workers’ rights, especially since the announcement of the Gulf state hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Back in 2012, many Indians working in Qatar as labourers expressed dissatisfaction with their working and living conditions as well as low wages, as reported by The Economic Times. The first large scale public reaction that exposed the situation of migrant labour in Qatar dates back to September 2013 when Britain’s Guardian newspaper documented the deaths of dozens of Nepali workers in Qatar over the summer.

While the Nepalese Ambassador to Qatar Maya Kumari Sharma described the emirate as an “open jail” (which eventually resulted in her being recalled to Nepal), the Indian embassy in Doha, despite concerns expressed by the international community, took a more diplomatic stance towards the issue declaring that there was nothing unusual about the registered deaths of Indian citizens working in Qatar, further praising Doha for taking care of the interests of Indian workers.

When questioned about foreign labourers in Qatar during his visit, the Emir’s answer coincided with the statement released by the Indian Embassy: “We are changing the laws and things are becoming much and much better now. The reports I received since we started construction for the World Cup, not even one incident, and you know constructions are very dangerous (…) we are confident as a country that if we have a mistake, we face it openly and we accept constructive criticism.”

India and Qatar are separately playing important roles in the region, but together they can make a tremendous impact. The recent visit can infuse fresh momentum in bilateral relations. India is not only a promising business partner for Qatar, but it could also be a potential support for Doha in its quest for ensuring security and stability while supplying Qatar with the much-needed workforce for the highly anticipated 2022 FIFA World Cup.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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