The real reason Qatar freed our Navy veterans

The LNG deal with India was worth $78 billion—it was the moolah that did the trick, says Subir Bhaumik

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani (photo: Prakash Singh/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani (photo: Prakash Singh/Getty Images)

Subir Bhaumik

The release of eight Indian Navy veterans accused of spying for Israel by Qatar, it would appear, had less to do with Prime Minister Modi’s personal chemistry with the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and more to do with the renewal of a lucrative LNG (liquified natural gas) 20-year purchase deal.

On the sidelines of India Energy Week on 5 February, India’s largest gas importer, Petronet-LNG, and QatarEnergy signed an agreement extending the contract (due to expire in 2028) to import 7.5 million tonnes of LNG annually for an estimated $78 billion. Energy experts say the deal was favourable to India and would help save $6 billion over 20 years.

Within a week of this deal, the eight Navy veterans were let off and brought back home, their prison terms waived after a royal act of clemency. In October 2023, their death penalty had been commuted to imprisonment. Perhaps that was when Qatar became sure that India would renew the deal and not look for alternatives elsewhere.

If Qatar has done Modi a favour by handing over the Navy veterans, it is with an eye on the Indian market and its technical manpower

India meets 40 per cent of its gas needs through imports. The contract with QatarEnergy accounts for 35 per cent of our total gas imports. Qatar began supplying LNG from 2003–2004 under the existing deal, which is priced at a ‘slope’ (per cent) of 12.67 per cent of the current Brent crude futures rates and a fixed charge of 52 cents per unit (million British thermal units or mmBtu) of gas.

New Delhi bargained hard, realising that Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter, was desperate for big buyers as rising US supplies to Europe limited marketing options for its expanded liquefaction capacity, which will rise from 77 million tonnes per annum to 126 million tonnes by 2027.

The Navy veterans convicted by Qatar for spying arrive in India (photo: Getty Images)
The Navy veterans convicted by Qatar for spying arrive in India (photo: Getty Images)
Getty Images

Punching above its weight

Over the years, tiny Qatar (285 times smaller than India) has clearly punched far above its weight through its zero-compunction, aggressive, no-holds-barred diplomacy, housing both huge US military bases and offices of radical Islamist groups like the Taliban and Hamas. It has created an unenviable track record in high-level hostage negotiations and peace parleys, all the while with an eye on the diplomatic high table.

Located between (Shia) Iran and (Sunni) Saudi Arabia—the two nations that bitterly compete for control of the Middle East—it shares a major oil and gas field with Iran, and its only land border is with Saudi Arabia. Besides hosting Hamas and Taliban offices, Qatar has been funding the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks regime change in Islamic countries with hereditary rule, quite possibly to buy peace for its own rulers.

Qatar is also accused of using the Doha-based media outlet Al Jazeera as a force multiplier to magnify conflicts or give them the desired spin before it moves in as peace broker.

Interestingly, the first video of the abducted French journalists Malbrunot and Chesnot in ISIS captivity was broadcast by Al Jazeera before they were finally released through Qatari mediation. Some say Qatar has occupied the big seat at the negotiating table because Washington is much too heavily dependent on it for a whole host of reasons.

Playing in all directions

Qatar houses America’s largest military base in the Middle East, after the US moved its Combat Air Operations Center from Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia to Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase near Doha in 2003. Al Udeid hosts over 10,000 US troops, serves as the logistics and command base for the US Central Command (CENTCOM) and is critical to US military operations in the region.

But Qatar also hosts the office of Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which runs the administration in Gaza. The Afghan Taliban ran a political office in Doha for seven years from 2013, before taking over the reins in Afghanistan.

Malbrunot and Chesnot, who authored Qatar Papers after their release, observed that Qatar, through its high-profile, secretive Qatar Charity, was indirectly helping finance Islamist groups that are themselves involved in hostage-taking, but plays a role in releasing captives after Qatari mediation.

Malbrunot called it out as the classic double game in which Qatar uses both conflict and resolution to gain influence and position in an otherwise volatile region. “That’s the double game, the grey zone,” Malbrunot told The New Yorker.

Qatar’s Arab neighbours—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt—saw through the double game and cut ties with it in 2017. The 13 demands that they presented to Qatar to lift their embargo included curbing diplomatic ties with Iran, severing all ties with terrorist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, and shutting down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations.

Qatar started the Al Jazeera TV channel in 1996 to beef up its political muscle and use it as a force multiplier for its murky diplomacy. Other than Al Jazeera, Qatar tried to ride the Muslim Brotherhood wave in Egypt, until it was removed from power and outlawed in 2013.

The four Arab countries alleged that Qatar was trying to meddle in their internal affairs through proxies like the Muslim Brotherhood. After a 43-month embargo, they restored ties with Qatar in 2021.

Qatar Papers also documents how Qatar was funding the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a terrorist outfit by its Arab neighbours, and a project of 140 mosques, Islamic schools and centres across Europe.

Using its massive wealth, Qatar augmented its soft power by getting to host the World Cup in 2022, edging out the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia in a bidding process marred by bribery allegations.

So, has Qatar been hunting with the hounds and swimming with the crocodiles, allowing it to emerge as a big player in West Asia, despite its relative lack of military power?

If it has done Modi a favour by handing over the Navy veterans—which the Indian prime minister will surely capitalise on in the run-up to the polls—it is with an eye on the Indian market and its technical manpower, its burgeoning middle class with rising personal disposable incomes and the investment opportunities it provides.

It has less to do with Modi and more to do with India.

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts

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