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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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An Arab Tightrope For India

India now has the opportunity to play the honest broker along with the United States right across the Middle East

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


The blockade of Qatar by a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia puts India in a piquant situation. New Delhi enjoys cordial relations with all the protagonists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made successful visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the two most aggressive members of the anti-Qatar coalition.

India has an excellent relationship with Qatar, the world’s largest producer of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). It is also India’s biggest supplier of natural gas. Prime Minister Modi’s high-profile visit to Israel on July 4 - 6, 2017 (the first by an Indian Prime Minister) was carefully followed by Tel Aviv’s Arab neighbours.

The elephant in the room in the Saudi-Qatar stand-off is Iran. While Riyadh and its Gulf allies claim that Qatar’s support for Islamist terrorists is the principal cause of the blockade, the real reason is Qatar’s growing closeness to Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s sworn Shia enemy.

Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field (named North Dome on the Qatari side and South Pars in Iranian waters). Tehran has gleefully stepped into the intra-Arab breach by sending to Qatar ships loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables. It has allowed Qatari aircraft to use Iranian air space, bypassing Arab states which have blocked Qatari flights.

Turkey, which like Iran is a non-Arab country, has also backed Qatar. It has already dispatched a small contingent of troops to Doha with tanks rolling through the Qatari capital last week. Unlike Shia Iran though, Sunni Turkey has good relations with the Saudis. It has the largest, most powerful army in the Middle East and maintains a military base in Qatar.

In a strong statement Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Arab blockage of Qatar an attack on its sovereignty and “against international law”. He added: “To ask Turkey to pull out its troops from Qatar is firstly disrespectful behaviour towards us. We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners. We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stance towards the 13 demands. It’s a very, very ugly approach to try to interfere with our agreement.”
The United States, after initially intemperate comments by President Donald Trump backing Saudi Arabia, has now taken a neutral position. Qatar hosts the biggest US military base, Al Udeid, in the Middle East. The air base lies just 20 km south of Doha. Washington can scarcely afford to antagonise Qatar given the endgame battle the US is waging against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa.

Qatar is one of the world’s richest countries with a per capita income higher than Switzerland. Its Al Jazeera TV channel is the most viewed across the region and often supports the lslamist Muslim Brotherhood. But in the pecking order of terrorist groups, the Brotherhood ranks way down a list that is led by the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Ironically, Saudi Arabia was an early sponsor of ISIS. Riyadh planned to use it to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (a Shia affiliate) who is backed by Iran and Iraq.  

In essence, this is a proxy war between Sunnis and Shias that dates back over 1,300 years, soon after the death of Prophet Mohammad. Sunnis regard Shias as heretics. The Shia axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria poses a threat to the paranoid Saudis. Hit by collapsing oil prices, Saudi Arabia is trying to reduce its reliance on petroleum products. One of the reasons for the abrupt elevation in June 2017 of 31-year-old deputy crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman as heir to the Saudi kingdom is that he is a leading proponent of “Saudi Vision 2030”. The plan aims to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy by diversifying it into telecom, health, education and infrastructure. Mohammed bin-Salman is also the driving force behind Qatar’s blockade.

How does the rift within the Arab world affect India? To begin with it puts pressure on Sunni-majority Pakistan to take sides. Islamabad doesn’t want to antagonise Iran with which it shares a long, porous and troubled western border. Yet it can’t afford to ignore Saudi Arabia’s veiled warning to support the action against Qatar. In order not to offend Iran, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declined to send Pakistani troops to join the 39-nation Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) which has been fighting tiny Yemen’s Houthi rebels (Shia affiliates backed by Iran) for over two years with spectacular lack of success. Sharif mollified Saudi Arabia by allowing former Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif to head the IMA which has shown itself to be an incompetent, blundering fighting force.
India has friendly relations with all the players in the Middle East — but with no strings attached. Modi’s historic Israel visit completes the circle. Indian foreign policy, though sound in theory, has often been leaden-footed in practice. India now has the opportunity to play the honest broker along with the United States right across the Middle East geography.

There are three clear power centres competing for salience in the Middle East. The first is the Saudi-led Sunni Gulf coalition, wealthy but militarily feeble. The second is the Iran-Iraq-Syria Shia axis, relatively poor but with strong fighting ability. Iran’s nuclear programme, though hamstrung by the US-Iran nuclear deal, could change the balance of Sunni-Shia power dramatically if Tehran is successful, despite the deal, in assembling a nuclear weapon. The third power centre comprises three wild cards: Turkey, Israel and Qatar. If the Saudi-Qatar dispute is not resolved quickly, the Saudi-led coalition will lose ground as it has in Yemen.

India can leverage this fluid situation to tackle several issues: counter-terrorism, extradition of militants from the Gulf and building the delayed Chabahar port infrastructure in Iran to provide land-locked Afghanistan a trade route bypassing Pakistan.

The geopolitical dividends could be significant and give India a major strategic advantage in Af-Pak.  Due to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s poor health after her kidney transplant last December, India has lacked diplomatic direction. The absence of a permanent defence minister compounds the problem. The Prime Minister must address both issues urgently if India has to play a full role in the rapidly shifting sands of the Middle East.

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