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South Asia pushes Gulf nations to resolve Qatar crisis

India, Pakistan, others have millions of migrant workers in region

Qatar Airways continued operations Monday from the airport in Dhaka, but local recruiting agencies in Bangladesh are concerned about the status of their workers in the Persian Gulf nation. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

NEW DELHI -- South Asian countries are demanding a quick resolution to the deepening crisis in Qatar, concerned about their migrant workers in the gas-rich Persian Gulf nation after Saudi Arabia and its allies cut diplomatic and economic ties last week.

India's foreign ministry said Saturday that "all parties should resolve their differences through a process of constructive dialogue and peaceful negotiations." The statement came several days after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and the Maldives broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar.

The statement did not specify who should take the lead on the "peaceful negotiations," but the ministry says such a resolution should be "based on ... noninterference in the internal affairs" of others. India likely chose this phrase to target Riyadh and its allies, which accuse Doha of supporting terrorism. Qatar is alleged to have paid up to $1 billion in ransom to terrorist-related groups for the release of its royal family members.

India, which historically has a close relationship with the Middle East, has "over 8 million Indian expatriates" in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the statement says. Unofficial estimates suggest Qatar alone provides homes and jobs to over 600,000 Indians, double the number of Qatari citizens in Qatar. Most of these Indians work at construction sites, trading firms and with other services. They regularly transfer their income back to India, the world's largest receiver of personal remittances from abroad.

The World Bank estimates India received nearly $63 billion in such remittances last year, ahead of China at $61 billion and the Philippines with nearly $30 billion. Pakistan and Bangladesh also are among the top 10 countries. Qatar, on the other hand, ranked fifth globally in sending such funds to India, as well as sixth for the Philippines and Bangladesh in 2014, the bank's data shows.

Apart from remittances, India depends heavily on natural gas imports from Qatar to meet domestic demand. India imported nearly $3.4 billion in natural gas from Qatar in 2016, or 62% of its total gas imports. Qatar also is the biggest supplier to Pakistan, at 42% of that nation's annual imports.

South Asian countries have taken different approaches toward the Qatar blockade. New Delhi officially issued only a statement, and a parliament member reportedly sent an email to India's foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, saying that a "prime minister's visits do not necessarily help in such matters."

But Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left Monday for Saudi Arabia to consult with that country's leadership. Sharif is accompanied on his one-day trip by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and Sartaj Aziz, a foreign affairs adviser, according to Radio Pakistan.

Sharif told reporters last week in Kazakhstan on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit that "we will try our best to resolve the differences between the Arab countries." The prime minister appeared motivated by Islamabad's status as the only nuclear weapons state in the Muslim world, rather than protecting Pakistan's 120,000 nationals living and working in Qatar.

Other players face difficulty tackling the Persian Gulf row. The Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry told reporters Sunday in Dhaka only that it is "aware of the matter," even as concerns grow in the nation's business community.

"Qatar is the only country [in the Middle East] who has strong demand for taking additional regular manpower from Bangladesh," Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, the joint secretary general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Sunday. The country sends over 400,000 migrant workers to Qatar, which is the third-largest employer for Bangladeshi citizens in the Gulf region.

Most of them work under contracts, which ensure that employers pay nearly all living costs including accommodations and medical expenses, but excluding food.

"We have been receiving information from our workers in Qatar," the secretary general said. "So far, there are [fewer] products in stores and some inflationary trend. But it has not reached a severe and critical situation yet."

Bangladesh must depend on the International Organization for Migration to transfer workers home in an emergency, he said, as "neither our government nor [the recruiting association] has enough financial power to transfer all the 400,000 workers from Qatar."

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