There are moments in a nation’s trajectory when its arrival on the global scene is heralded by the quality of its leadership. The decision by Qatar to release eight former Indian navy officials who were facing death sentences for alleged spying is a testament not only to the strength of India-Qatar bilateral ties but also to the distinct ability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to forge strong personal bonds with leaders of other nations to secure Indian interests. In one stroke, Modi has underscored how he remains key to India’s rising global profile, something his critics have continued to challenge since 2014 despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It is easy to forget how tense a time it was when a Qatari court had sentenced the men to death in October last year. There was a sense of despair about their future, and in retaliation, there were many who were quick to suggest that New Delhi should renounce its ties with Doha. Qatar’s decision to challenge the foundations of an essentially strong relationship had begun to provoke a rethink in India about the future sustainability of this relationship.
Why PM-Level Talks Became Necessary
New Delhi expressed its “deep shock” at the verdict and had explored all possible legal and diplomatic options-from high-level political engagement to moving through the appeals process, and even invoking the provisions of a 2015 pact on the transfer of sentenced prisoners. But the road ahead was difficult and it required deft diplomacy and leadership from the very top.
And that’s where prime ministerial-level engagement becomes the key. It is easy to suggest that India has leverage in its ties with Qatar, but deploying it effectively requires a leadership that is willing to push for concrete outcomes. Modi’s willingness to put himself out there is a key variable that made a positive outcome possible. For any leader, such a move is full of risks, as a failure would have led to questions being raised about Modi’s global credibility.
But Modi met the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid Al Thani, on the sidelines of the COP-28 meeting in Dubai last December, after which the sentences of the eight Indian navy officials were reduced. It was a sign that things were moving in the right direction. And then, last week, India and Qatar signed a major deal that will secure exports of Qatari liquified natural gas to India until the end of 2048. This builds on a 25-year agreement that was due to expire in 2028.
Good Ties Are Important For Both India & Qatar
India and Qatar do enjoy strong economic ties, with the Gulf nation being the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas to India, accounting for more than 50% of its LNG imports. Also, an Indian diaspora of around 840,000 sustains Qatar’s labour force. For Qatar, building robust ties with an emerging economic power like India has been a priority as it seeks diversification in its external relationships, while for New Delhi, it has been about strengthening its partnership with a Gulf state that punches above its weight in the region and beyond. There is a reason why when Qatar was isolated and feeling the heat of the Saudi-led blockade in 2017-2021, India continued with its economic engagement with Doha.
It was this partnership that many in India had begun to question after the diplomatic challenge posed by the action against Indian Navy veterans. Modi has managed to salvage this key relationship by reminding both the Qataris and the Indians that there is value in preserving the sanctity of their partnership. Qatar’s decision came on the day when Modi was embarking on his two day trip to the UAE to inaugurate the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, further underscoring how transformative his leadership has been in shaping India’s engagement in the Middle East.
A Success Story For The Modi Government
This region has been one of the biggest success stories of the Modi government’s foreign policy in the last decade. With some deft diplomatic footwork and a newfound nimbleness, New Delhi has managed to build remarkably strong ties with the Arab states in the Gulf. Looking beyond just energy ties and diaspora linkages, the Indian approach to the region has assumed a strategic character, making way for a wider regional policy response instead of merely bilaterals, as reflected in the emergence of that I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE and the US) minilateral. This converged in the high-profile announcement during last year’s G-20 summit in New Delhi of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, a multi-modal transport and economic corridor connecting three geographies, aimed at boosting economic prosperity and bridging the infrastructure deficit.
It is fitting, therefore, that Modi will be visiting Doha too this week after the UAE, his first visit to Qatar since 2016. It will be a reminder to both the Indians and the Qataris that the Indian Prime Minister has been one of the most consequential of Indian leaders for New Delhi’s engagement with the Middle East, and that the region has reciprocated the gesture by recognising Modi’s contribution to building a robust bilateral partnership.
[Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. His most recent books include ‘India and the Gulf: Theoretical Perspectives and Policy Shifts’ (Cambridge University Press) and ‘Politics and Geopolitics: Decoding India’s Neighbourhood Challenge’ (Rupa)]
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.