Qatar ‘Crisis’ in the times of ‘Corona’ Pandemic- India’s ‘Concern’

 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan
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With major business forums and sporting events staying postponed or cancelled, the Covid-19 pandemic over the last month or so, has not only affected these sectors but also all the interconnected segments including aviation and energy. While the pandemic moved progressively from China to Italy via Iran and then shifting to the US[1] , the concerns for the developing and the under-developed world with dearth of facilities, seems to have taken a back seat. Moreover, in the midst of these highlights, the world also might have forgotten the civil wars and the frequent proxy conflicts in West Asia (Middle East) as well. The Covid-19 positive cases are steadily increasing in the Persian Gulf, though much effort for curbing this is underway. The case of Qatar, one of the wealthiest and smaller states in the region, is in the frontline for curbing the outbreak and at the same time as the graph indicates, the positive cases are increasing slightly since the first week of April (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Total Covid-19 Cases in Qatar as on April 5, 2020.

Source: Worldometers, Qatar; https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/qatar/.

Qatar’s Diplomatic Status Quo

As Qatar was enforced with an embargo by other Arab nations in the region for the last few years, the gas rich nation somehow tackled through the situation to keep the domestic economy stable- causing limited strain to the people [2]. Following that, in 2018, US President Trump had retracted from the Iranian Nuclear deal and thus sanctions had been back on Iran. It is noteworthy that the natural gas rich nation, Qatar, had also been reliant on Iran for domestic supplies since the embargo was put on them, which forced the US to comply along with its long-time ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. However, on January 1, 2019, Qatar exited from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Nations (OPEC) as it exports more of gas than a small share of oil and was a business decision for the nation’s future strategy towards the energy sector [3]. Interestingly, the State of Qatar had somehow maintained their domestic economy at 2.6 per cent growth rate [4] to an extent that even International Monetary Fund (IMF) applauded their efforts. In a press release, IMF in June 2019 stated that “Economic performance improved in 2018; Qatar’s economy has successfully absorbed the shocks from the 2014–16 drop in hydrocarbon prices and the 2017 diplomatic rift. Qatar’s banking sector remains healthy, reflecting high asset quality and strong capitalization[5].

Indeed, Qatar in the recent past had hosted various sporting events showcasing its ability to conduct major international events amidst the embargo posed by their major neighbours on air, land and sea trade. Interestingly, the marquee football event- the 22nd edition of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Football World Cup, is to be held in 2022[6]  and the arrangements are in progress. However, the current Covid-19 pandemic is a concern across the globe and also in the region. Their diplomatic efforts in the region are commendable as Qatar had even offered a helping hand to Iran and China during the early days of the pandemic. A trepidation that Qatar might need to assess is that apart from Iran, the former is the only the state has crossed 1500 cases as of April 5, 2020,[7] which constitutes as the second largest denomination in the Middle East. This is a major concern for the West Asian nation as a sudden surge was witnessed in that last week or so.

Curious Case of the State of Qatar

The first positive index case[8] in the nation was reported in Doha on February 27, 2020 with a travel history to Iran. Citing a sudden surge through individual level contact, the Qatari government issued the closure of schools and universities[9] on March 9, 2020 while also placing a travel ban on 15 nations as well. As on April 7, 2020, there has been 2,057 positive cases in the country, around 41,818 people tested, and six deaths have been reported[10]. According to the Ministry of Public Health of the Qatar Government, the majority of the cases in the country are linked to the migrants travelling to Doha. Interestingly, as mentioned earlier, the nation has been preparing for the marquee event to be held in 2022 with many infrastructural projects related to it. In fact, majority of migrant workers are involved in these. Moreover, these workers are from the region and South Asia as well.

Figure 2:  Daily New Positive Cases in Qatar as of April 5, 2020.

Source:  Worldometers, Qatar; https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/qatar/.

The question is how did the transmission increase in the meantime? It is observed that more than half of Qatar’s population constitutes of emigrants from South Asian, South East Asian and Gulf countries.  So, in a country like Qatar where migrants[11] contribute to a huge share of the economy, has to be alert in taking steps like aggressive testing mechanisms rather than just giving precautionary measures. Apart from that, given the bonhomie with Iran and the Shia connection, majority of the people especially from other countries in Asia might have visited the major Shia shrines in Iraq and Iran coming into the state. However, as the first case was an imported one from Iran, the Qatari government had taken precautionary measures for the evacuees from the latter by 27 February [12] itself; then how did the surge happen?

While unnoticed and unidentified cases is one of the obvious reasons for the spread, adding to it, Doha’s Hamad International Airport has been a busy one with a major layover facility and transit to other parts of the world[13]. The airport authorities have been taking precautionary measures as the airplane traffic is more via Doha to the South Asian nations mostly to India especially from Europe. Moreover, the pandemic has affected almost all sectors in the country especially the Qatar Airways and the energy sector. Therefore, the country which is one of the largest hubs for hydrocarbons is alarmed with a scare of a surge in cases among its population.

India’s Concern

India’s relation with Qatar is commendable. The gas rich nation from the Persian Gulf had offered around 35 crore rupees of aid to India amidst the embargo for the drastic Kerala Floods in 2018[14] as a goodwill gesture for the decades of contribution by the people of the state to the core areas of development in Qatar. However, the Indian government had thanked for the same but had to decline the offer from Qatar citing a certain Disaster Management Act, 2015, which had been following the pattern of self-funding for internal relief measures since the Tsunami of 2004[15]. Adding to it, Qatar is India’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) supplier accounting more than 50 per cent of latter’s total LNG imports [16] and around 15 per cent of the former’s export [17]; India has even provided a Most Favoured Nation tariff to Qatar for  trade. Interestingly, India is the gas rich nation’s third largest export destination after Japan and South Korea. These factors exhibit the economic association between the two nations which has been also fighting the pandemic with its limited resources.

Out of the total population of 28,69,778 in Qatar [18], as per the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India, the Indian diaspora constitutes of 7,46,550, that is around one-fourth of the total population and largest working contingent in the country[19]. Apart from this, majority of the people work in the thrust sectors including engineering, education, finance, construction, infrastructural projects and also in the currently important area of medical industry in the country. However, there are a few concerns regarding the diaspora. One is the sudden surge of Covid-19 transmission in the thickly populated areas of the country. Secondly, as there is a global slowdown of the world economy a possible recession could affect the migrant workers in the country as a major share of Indians might get affected, which would also affect the remittances and businesses. Maafi Kulus, Maafi Mushkil (No money, No problem) might be an Arabic phrase but currently this would be a paradox globally given the economic slowdown. Therefore, this is the time when both these nations need to be vigilant while fighting the pandemic for a possible clampdown and to extent maximum financial and equipment support towards the medical infrastructure of the two countries. Perhaps the bigger picture is yet to be seen with the outbreak changing the course slightly in the developing world especially in the Persian Gulf and the need of the hour is to cooperate and contain Covid-19 pandemic together keeping apart diplomatic rifts.

References

[1] J Aguilera et al, “WHO Anticipates 1 Million COVID-19 Cases and 50,000 Deaths Worldwide ‘In the Next Few Days’”, Time, April 2, 2020, https://time.com/5789631/coronavirus-covid-19-global-cases/, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[2] M Smith, “How is Qatar coping with its economic embargo?”, BBC, January 10, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46795696, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[3] N Kozhanov, “Qatar’s Exit from the OPEC: Economically Driven, Politically Determined”, Gulf Insights Series No.5, January 2019, https://www.qu.edu.qa/static_file/qu/research/Gulf%20Studies/documents/gulf%20insights%205%20Nikolay%20Kozhanov.pdf, accessed on April 8, 2019.

[4] IMF, “IMF Executive Board concludes 2019 Article IV Consultation with Qatar”, Press Release No.19/192, International Monetary Fund, June 3, 2019, https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2019/06/03/pr19192-qatar-imf-executive-board-concludes-2019-article-iv-consultation-with-qatar, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] FIFA World Cup Qatar 2020, “FIFA President praises Qatar 2022 infrastructural progress during whistle-stop tour”, FIFA.com, October 23, 2018, https://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/fifa-president-praises-qatar-2022-infrastructure-progress-during-whistle-stop-to, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[7]Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19)”, Ministry of Public Health, Government of the State of Qatar, April 5, 2020, https://www.moph.gov.qa/english/Pages/Coronavirus2019.aspx/, accessed on April 6, 2020.

[8] Government Communication Office, “Arrival of Qatari Citizens from the Islamic State of Iran”, Press release, The Government of the State of Qatar, February 27, 2020, https://www.gco.gov.qa/en/2020/02/27/arrival-of-the-qatari-citizens-from-the-islamic-republic-of-iran/, Accessed on April 8,2020.

[9] Government Communication Office, “Government Communications Office statement on the suspension of public and private schools and universities for all students until further notice as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19)”, Press release, The Government of the State of Qatar, March 9,2020, https://www.gco.gov.qa/en/2020/03/09/statement-on-the-suspension-of-public-and-private-schools-and-universities-for-all-students-until-further-notice-as-a-precautionary-measure-to-contain-the-spread-of-coronavirus/, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[10]Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19)”, Ministry of Public Health, Government of the State of Qatar, April 7, 2020, https://www.moph.gov.qa/english/Pages/Coronavirus2019.aspx#, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[11] J Snoj, “Population of Qatar by Nationality- 2019 Report”, Priyadsouza Communications, August 15, 2019, http://priyadsouza.com/population-of-qatar-by-nationality-in-2017/, accessed on April 8,2020.

[12] Government Communication Office, “Arrival of Qatari Citizens from the Islamic State of Iran”, Press release, The Government of the State of Qatar, February 27, 2020.

[13]Doha airport closed to travellers from India, other coronavirus- hit countries”, Business Line, March 9, 2020, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/logistics/doha-airport-closed-to-travellers-from-india-other-coronavirus-hit-countries/article31022929.ece, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[14] First Post, “With Rs 700 crore, UAE tops list of nations offering aid to rain-battered Kerala; Qatar gives Rs 35 crore, Maldives Rs 34 lakh”, FirstPost.com, August 21, 2018, https://www.firstpost.com/india/with-rs-700-crore-assistance-uae-tops-list-of-countries-offering-aid-to-rain-battered-kerala-qatar-gives-rs-35-crore-maldives-rs-34-lakh-5009661.html, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[15] Ibid.

[16] MEA, “India- Qatar Bilateral Relations”, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Janaury 31, 2020, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/India-Qatar_January_2020.pdf, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[17]India-Qatar Bilateral  Relations”, Embassy of India, Doha,June 12, 2016, https://bit.ly/39SfIFa, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[18]Qatar Population 2020”, Worldometer, April 7, 2020, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/qatar-population/, accessed on April 8, 2020.

[19] MEA, “Qatar- Population of Overseas Indians”, Overseas Indian Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, October 10, 2019, http://mea.gov.in/images/attach/NRIs-and-PIOs_1.pdf, accessed on April 8, 2020.

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Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. He holds an MPhil in International Relations from University of Madras, Chennai. His MPhil Thesis was titled ‘India- Israel Relations: An Analytical Study with Reference to Defence Industry and Equipment Trade Since 1992’. He also has a Master’s in Politics and International Relations from the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University (a Central University) and a Bachelor’s in Economics from Mar Ivanios College (Autonomous), University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. Prior to CLAWS, he has interned with Middle East Institute at New Delhi ([email protected]), Regional Centre for Expertise Acknowledged by United Nations University- Trivandrum and National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. His research-oriented areas include West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, India’s Foreign Policy, Energy Security, Economy and Strategic Cooperation.