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What’s Behind Qatar’s Decision to Release 8 Indian Nationals Convicted of Espionage?

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What’s Behind Qatar’s Decision to Release 8 Indian Nationals Convicted of Espionage?

India has been seeking their release since August 2022. Did the timing relate to India’s shift away from a pro-Israel stance? 

What’s Behind Qatar’s Decision to Release 8 Indian Nationals Convicted of Espionage?
Credit: Depositphotos

Over the weekend, Qatar released eight Indian nationals previously arrested on espionage charges, all of whom were veterans of the Indian Navy. The eight suspects were accused by Doha in August 2022 of leaking details of their work for the Qatar-based firm Dahra Global to Israel. Although the details of the case have not been disclosed, the firm’s work advising the Qatari government on the acquisition of Italian submarines had led analysts to theorize that Qatari authorities suspected the eight Indian nationals of passing the details of Doha’s nascent submarine program on to Israeli intelligence. 

After the eight were sentenced to death by a Qatari court in October 2023, Indian officials at the Ministry of External Affairs expressed their shock at the decision and announced their intention to “take up the verdict with Qatari authorities.” This weekend’s release of the prisoners represents the culmination of India’s efforts to seek the release of the prisoners after a Qatari court commuted the death sentences of the eight Indian nationals late last year.

Although this saga might seem to be good fodder for a spy thriller, it has played out amid a similarly dramatic shift in India’s Middle East policy over the last few months, namely with regard to Israel. At the outset of the war in Gaza back in October, India was quick to express support for Israel, even while reiterating its usual line of support for a two-state solution. Nonetheless, as Israel’s campaign in Gaza continued, New Delhi’s patience grew thin. In November 2023, India voiced its support for a United Nations resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank and offered similar support in December for a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

While India has by no means abandoned Israel, the shift away from the more pro-Israel stances espoused by Israeli allies like the United States suggests that, at the very least, India’s approach to Israel is flexible. In light of India’s ongoing spat with Qatar, this should not be all that surprising.

At best, the India-Qatar dispute demonstrates that Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the Arab world, are somewhat sensitive to the relationship between Israel and India, especially with regard to military-to-military links. At worst, the timing of India’s shift in its Israel policy and the release of the prisoners suggests that Qatar, a country that routinely hosts senior Hamas officials, was more than happy to link India’s stance on the Gaza conflict to the resolution of the dispute between Doha and New Delhi. Either way, the result remains the same: The dispute (and its resolution this week) shows that India’s relationship with Israel can seriously impact its partnerships with other regional actors. 

This is a relatively novel development in India’s Middle Eastern policy. Other key allies like Iran have, at best, expressed their expectation that India will work toward peace in Palestine, not necessarily conveyed that India’s relationship with Israel hindered good relations between Tehran and New Delhi. Although Qatar is hardly India’s most important ally in the region, this does not mean the lesson is not worth learning. New Delhi has been fortunate that, despite being a close strategic partner of both Israel and Iran, the country has not faced broad resistance to its relationship with Israel from other regional actors. Indian diplomats are going to need to be increasingly aware that this is the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

This does not seem to be a contradiction India can circumvent, either. Qatar, like other allies in the region, is not a partner that India can easily discard. For one, Iran, India’s partner in its regional infrastructure project, has expressed a desire that Doha be welcomed into India’s infrastructure plans for the region. India’s inability to secure other viable alternatives to Iran’s cooperation, at least for the time being, would suggest that New Delhi has little choice but to make nice with Qatar. 

The same can be said for security cooperation as well, with Iran expressing a desire to build upon previous naval cooperation between Qatar, the Gulf states, and India in order to form a regional defense initiative. At a time when the Indian Navy seems particularly focused on maritime stability in the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Persian Gulf, New Delhi cannot really afford to alienate erstwhile naval partners in the region. 

Beyond economic and strategic initiatives, India also has significant person-to-person connections with Qatar that would be difficult to sever. With 750,000 Indian nationals living and working in Qatar, and many more scattered throughout other Gulf states, India cannot alienate any one of these countries, lest it jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of its expatriates.

To that end, moving forward, New Delhi officials will have to be increasingly cognizant of the contradiction in its relationship with both Israel and other countries in the Middle East. This is not to say it cannot maintain good relations with all sides, but rather to point out that for New Delhi to ignore such a contradiction would be to open up Indian interests and citizens alike to key vulnerabilities.