India–Qatar ties strained by 'spy' death sentences

Last week, a Qatari court sentenced 8 Indian workers from a Qatari company to death on 'spy charges', posing a complex diplomatic challenge for India. They had been arrested in Doha in 2022

Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (pictured), could pardon the eight Indian nationals (photo: DW)
Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (pictured), could pardon the eight Indian nationals (photo: DW)


Days after a Qatari court sentenced eight Indian naval veterans to death, India's external affairs minister S Jaishankar met with the men's families in New Delhi and promised that the government would make "all efforts" to help release them.

"The government attaches the highest importance to the case. I fully share the concerns and pain of the families, underlined that government will continue to make all efforts to secure their release," Jaishankar said in a statement on social media.

Why were the men sentenced to death?

The veteran officers had worked for Al Dahra, a private Gulf-based company, reported the AFP news agency. Al Dahra offers "complete support solutions" to the aerospace, security and defence sectors, according to its website.

Neither New Delhi nor Doha has disclosed specific details of the charges. However, according to The Hindu newspaper, the men — who had been arrested in Doha in August 2022 — were accused of spying for a "third country", while the Times of India said "various reports claimed they were accused of spying for Israel".

Unnamed sources in India and Qatar cited by the Reuters news agency also suggested the men were charged with spying for Israel.

"While the specific charges were never disclosed publicly, their confinement in solitary cells hinted at possible security-related offences," an intelligence official told DW on condition of anonymity.

Where does this leave India–Qatar relations?

Qatar, a tiny gas-rich country on the Persian Gulf, has historically friendly ties with India and trade has been a central pivot — with India sourcing 40 per cent of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) needs from Qatar, accounting for nearly half of the global imports, according to official data.

In addition, Qatar is home to a sizeable Indian diaspora, who send back a significant share of foreign remittances.

Given this context, former diplomats and academics say the death sentence constitutes a significant challenge, which has taken India by surprise and made India–Qatar relations a sensitive issue.

Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, a former diplomat and the first Indian woman to be appointed ambassador to Qatar in 2008, said that the verdict was a shock to all Indians, and statements and action by the Indian government show that the case is receiving the highest priority.

"There are over 700,000 Indians in Qatar who have played a key role in the development of the country and both economic and political ties have been close," Wadhwa told DW. She added Qatar and India are likely to not let the case harm "the larger interests of bilateral relations".

"No stone will be left unturned to ensure the safe return of our citizens. They will be extended all legal help to proceed with the case and I am sure, as is normal, appeals will be made to the highest levels," Wadhwa said.

A test of India-Qatar ties

Muddassir Quamar, associate professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the immediate priority must be to ascertain the complete list of charges, consider the legal context and implications, and work towards exploring possible legal, diplomatic and political avenues to save the lives of the accused.

"Announcement of capital punishment means that the nature of the allegations is serious. The government's reaction has been considered and rightly so, given the complexity and seriousness of the issue. It would require deft diplomatic and political handling to seek a favourable outcome," Quamar told DW.

Apart from economic relations, both countries also enjoy political ties, evidence of which has been seen in high-level visits in recent years.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited Qatar in June 2016 and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, paid a state visit to India a year earlier, which has laid the foundation for a strong economic relationship.

There is also the India–Qatar Defence Cooperation Agreement serving as a pivotal milestone in defence cooperation between the two countries.

What next?

K.P. Fabian, a former envoy to Qatar, said India would explore all its options and saw it prudent to formally approach Qatar's Emir as early as appropriate.

In his reckoning, Qatar recognises the rising profile of India given the high-profile visits and was hopeful the navy personnel would be pardoned.

"It is customary in Islamic states to grant pardon during the holy month of Ramadan. Fortunately, in Qatar, a request for pardon does not entail a long red tape. The emir's office recommends a decision," Fabian told DW.

"Having dealt with Indo–Qatari relations since 1988, first as joint secretary and later as ambassador in Doha, I am convinced that the eight will not be executed."

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Published: 01 Nov 2023, 10:04 AM