Against the backdrop of the very intimate Qatar-US relations and the US-led West supporting Israel, the charge against Indian naval veterans of spying for Israel is absurd.
Qatar has sentenced eight Indian Navy veterans to death, namely Captains Navtej Singh Gill, Saurabh Vashisht and Birendra Kumar Verma; Commanders Purenendu Tiwari, Sugunakar Pakala and Amit Nagpal, and Sailor Ragesh.
They were employed with Qatar’s Dahra Global Technologies and Consultancy Services, a private firm described as a local business partner of Qatar’s defence and other agencies. When arrested in August 2022, these personnel were suspected of spying on Qatar’s secret project to acquire high-tech stealth submarines manufactured in Italy. In 2020, Italy’s Fincantieri SpA (which also has an office in New Delhi) had signed a deal with Qatar for the production of these stealth submarines along with other vessels.
The timing of the death sentence coincides with the Israel-Hamas war and the alacrity with which India initially voiced support for Israel and only later also expressed backing for the Palestine cause, considered an afterthought by observers.
Strong Qatar-US ties
The year 2023 marks 50 years of the establishment of full diplomatic relations between India and Qatar. India-Qatar bilateral trade in 2021-22 was US$ 15.03 billion; India’s export to Qatar was US$ 1.83 billion and India’s import from Qatar were US$ 13.19 billion. In 2021, India was among the top four largest export destinations for Qatar and is also among the top three sources of Qatar’s imports.
It is quite apparent that the US has been wanting to open another front against Russia (other than Ukraine) and draw Iran into the Middle East conflict despite America’s slide towards recession disguised by bloated deficit spending. Year-end data from September shows that the deficit in 2023 was $1.7 trillion, $320 billion higher than the previous year's deficit – 6.3 per cent increase as percentage of GDP over 5.4 per cent in fiscal year 2022.
The Middle East could erupt soon as signaled not only by Israel’s continuing air strikes in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria but also America’s multiple airstrikes on unspecified military installations in Syria already.
The US-Qatar military relations are intimate and very strong. The US Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center are based in Qatar. It is no secret that over the years the US had been bombing Syria with plans to hit Iran for disallowing the Iran-Syria- Europe oil pipeline in preference to the Qatari pipeline to Europe. When Syria was subjected to the first Sarin gas attack, the Russian FSB had intercepted a conversation between executives of ‘Britain Defence’ (UK’s top mercenary outfit) discussing the provision of a World War II chemical bomb to Homs in Syria, as requested by Qatar and approved by the US.
Interestingly, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas chief, was living a life of luxury in Qatar with full knowledge of the US. Yet, the US never declared him a terrorist. He has reportedly been killed in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces. The US also maintains contact with the Taliban ruling Afghanistan through Qatar. There is every indication that the US wants to use Israel as a proxy like Ukraine while providing full military support from NATO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s has a very difficult task at hand and would be fighting a “six-front war”, including some created by Netanyahu himself - as explained by Thomas Friedman in his recent article in the New York Times.
Against the backdrop of the very intimate Qatar-US relations and the US-led West supporting Israel, the charge against Indian naval veterans of spying for Israel is absurd. It is quite possible that these false accusations were cooked up aiming at something sinister in the future – was it a nudge from the US which dislikes continued India-Russia relations? Even now, the US has enough clout with Qatar to intervene in the matter, but it will not beyond perhaps some conciliatory statements, if at all.
Qatar has highly radical credentials. The death sentence announced by Qatar appears to be a sequel to India’s support for Israel. The judgment has shocked India, especially when the politicians are fully submerged in upcoming state elections.
Another speculation is that the death sentence has been announced in a secret deal between India and Qatar at the highest level, and the Emir of Qatar would pardon them or commute their sentence in December. Every year the Emir pardons a number of prisoners on Ramadan and Qatar’s National Day on December 18. This will then be touted as a mammoth victory by the ruling party in India, boosting their vote-banks in the upcoming elections. The basis for speculating such political expediency is not known, but the important issue is the lives of these naval veterans.
India will need its best efforts, politically and diplomatically, to ensure these naval veterans are spared. Early and direct dialogue between the heads of government to influence the reversal of the sentence would certainly help, aside from other diplomatic efforts.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)