Since the early 2000s, a concerted effort has been made to take India-Qatar ties beyond energy security and diaspora. Both the countries agree on the need to enhance and deepen bilateral cooperation in diverse fields. Some of the potential areas for cooperation include high-level political exchange, people-to-people contact, and joint ventures in Qatar’s hydrocarbon sector. Defence cooperation remains an important area of bilateral engagements between India and Qatar.
In November 2008, a framework agreement on defence and security cooperation was signed during the first-ever visit to Qatar by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The agreement covered security concerns of Qatar and sought to safeguard India’s interest in the region, including maritime training, joint-exercise and sending troops in case Qatar is threatened. The leaders of the two countries signed another agreement on law and security during this visit. It covered money laundering, transnational crime and intelligence sharing on terrorism. Despite the agreements being described as a ‘landmark’ in the history of India-Qatar bilateral ties, the momentum achieved during the visit slowed down. The subsequent defence cooperation meetings, 2011 (in New Delhi) and 2013 (in Doha) were limited to high-level delegation interactions, and nothing concrete emerged from them.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, serious efforts were made to improve the defence cooperation with Qatar into a more “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Mr Modi held multiple high-profile meetings with his counterparts in 2014, 2016 and 2019. Given India’s potential and expertise in defence production, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was also “forthcoming” to enhance defence relations with India. The talks proved fruitful, resulting in signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aimed at cooperating in key areas like counterterrorism, terror financing, cyber security, and maritime security.
The two countries are trying to come up with a coordinated approach towards counter-extremism. Both sides agreed to intensify cooperation in disrupting the source of terror-income and countering terrorist propaganda through the internet. A MoU was signed between the Finance Intelligence Unit-India (FIU) and Qatar Financial Informational Unit to share intelligence on illegal movement of money. Similarly, the protocol for technical cooperation was initiated in cyber space and combating cybercrime. Both the countries are working to address each other’s defence and security concerns and work towards a common solution. Unfortunately, little information is available in the public domain regarding these initiatives. It is also unclear when and how such undertakings might be fulfilled.
Qatar is attempting to boost its defence industry capacity and enhance military experience, while diversifying its military partners in the region. According to SIPRI, the Qatari arms imports rose by more than 200% between 2007 to 2011; furthermore in 2012 to 2016. In 2019, the kingdom’s cumulative expenditure on procurement was projected to be US$6.4 billion. Their major imports include Apache helicopters, Early Radar, F-15 aircrafts, Javelin missiles, and Patriot systems etc. In the coming years, Doha is expected to focus on purchasing Main Battle Tanks (MBT’s), artillery systems, missile defence system, radar systems, utility helicopters, training, and fighter aircraft etc.
The growing import of arms and jets imply that the government is prepared to spend more on developing its modest defence capabilities at a time of extreme regional turmoil – Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The Qatari military is sponsoring an initiative to create vast military training facilities and programs focused on supporting their recent defence acquisitions. It is also deploying its small but well-trained forces to protect its territorial integrity and to help secure wider Gulf security.
As the regional turmoil is expected to persist, Qatar’s spending on military equipment will continue to rise. Its reliance on foreign manufacturers like the US, Russia, Italy, and UK will rise and this will also bring numerous opportunities in India-Qatar ties. New Delhi must not miss this opportunity. As it is becoming a preferred partner for developing defence industries in Gulf countries. In fact, India has established ties with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. Strengthening ties with Qatar will only make India’s position stronger in the Gulf. There is also a broad consensus among Indians on the contours of these emerging ties with Qatar, particularly with respect to enhance defence and military cooperation.
For India, counter-terrorism cooperation is important given the fact that the country has suffered multiple terror attacks in the past. India is also subjected to cross-border terrorism from the groups based in Pakistan. In some cases, the perpetrators of such attacks have bankrolled their activities through illegal money transfer abroad. On the other hand, Qatar has that has escaped direct terror threats for more than a decade and is using its sovereign wealth, primarily through the Qatar Foundation to target the root causes of terrorism outside its borders. Last major terror attack hit the country in 2005, although the US base in Al Udeid has come under threat of attack several times. Nevertheless, Doha’s counter-terrorism expertise can prove to be handy in tackling extremism in India.
Qatar is one of the fastest growing nations developing expertise in artificial intelligence and cyber security. In 2014, the country formed the National Cyber Security Committee as part of its Cyber Security Project. The key agenda was to establish and maintain a secure cyberspace to safeguard national interest and defend the national infrastructure from large attacks. Qatar has begun focusing on cyber-defence and cyber-warfare but also trying to hone skills in artificial intelligence. In 2019, the government endorsed a 16-page national Al strategy by Qatar Centre for Artificial Intelligence. The blueprint proposes several measures such as identifying economic opportunities, attracting top Al talent, developing IT curricula, and inaugurating research programs, particularly those that are critical to foster a domestic Al ecosystem.
In 2017, hackers uploaded fabricated information onto Qatar’s News Agency website (Al Jazeera), bots then multiplied an avalanche of indecent content on social media, all of which led to Gulf stalemate. Since then, Qatar has thrived in cyber security and AI, securing economic and strategic future. Today, it provides platforms for multilateral discussion on how cyber ethics and cyber peace will have to be shaped in the future. In 2020, Qatar launched AI in Healthcare, the first forum of its kind. The platform provided global and local industry leaders to connect, engage and share experience on how AI is transforming the health sector globally, mostly due to pandemic and what it means for Qatar to become a regional centre of Excellence for AI in healthcare.
In contrast, cyber security and data privacy happen to be the two most overlooked threats in India. According to the Data Security Council of India (DSCI) report, India has faced the second highest number of cyber-attacks in the world from 2016-2018. Given the vulnerability and frequency of cybersecurity threats, India needs constant vigilance. Skill-gap in the cyber security domain is another impediment to ensure safety of cyberspace. 59% of the Indian organizations have vacant cyber security positions with 3.5 million new vacancies being created by 2021. There is a need of cyber security experts in Indian institutes and organisations.
Given the situation, it is in India’s interest to ramp up its initiative of digitalization and cyber- security with Qatar. For instance, a MoU can be signed between the Cybercrime Investigations Centre; Qatar Computer Emergency Response Team and Cyber security Coordination Office with India’s Cyber and Information security Division, Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, Cybercrime Coordination Centre, DSCI, NITI Ayog, Indian Army Cyber etc. Both the countries can also exchange experts and scholars of best practice in cyber security in ministries and think tanks.
India and Qatar should highlight the importance of education, science, and research in enhancing cyber security. The two sides can facilitate student exchanges. Such student exchanges can especially benefit India. Qatar University, Carnegie Mellon University and Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) offer specialised studies and research programs in cyber security. The Qatar Centre for Artificial Intelligence collaborates with international partners, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boeing to find solutions to technology challenges, including cyber security.
In terms of terror financing, India can work with Qatar Central bank, which in coordination with its Emergency Response Team (Q-CERT) has been put in place to protect the country’s financial institution. Lot of money flow and investment from Qatar and the instances of black money probes have taken Indian officials to Qatar’s shores. It is crucial for India to identify Qatari institutes to further strengthen its cooperation to mitigate terror financing in the country.
Since the establishment of strategic partnership, maritime cooperation between the two countries has strengthened tremendously. A MoU was signed to encourage exchange in national port management and greater collaboration in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean region. The pact with Qatar can provide India an opportunity to assure the access to shipping lines and free flow of oil and gas in the region. India is a principal beneficiary of the trade and energy flow through West Asian (or the Middle East) littorals. Any disruption in the region can jeopardise India’s energy security. More importantly, the region is home to more than 7 million Indians, whose remittances contribute significantly to Indian economy. Last year, the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) created an urgent need for greater Indian naval presence in the region. Better maritime cooperation would help the Indian government to avoid last moment evacuation panic while assuring the safety and security of its nationals. New Delhi’s concern to tackle emerging non-traditional challenges such as armed robbery, drugs/human trafficking, illegal fishing, and maritime terrorism can result in greater capacity-building assistance, allowing joint operations to combat activities in the Gulf region. It is important to note that New Delhi is already active in Arabian Sea.
In the past few years, various high-level dignitaries including Chief of Staff of Qatar armed force in 2018 and the Commander of the Qatari Emiri Naval Forces in 2019 have visited India. Indian Navy’s warships, INS Mumbai and INS Trikand visited Hamad port in 2018 and 2019. The Indian Coast Guard Ship Samudra Paheredar also visited Qatar in 2020 as part of its goodwill visit to the Gulf region. Both the countries shall continue to embark on high-level visit, and joint exercise to have a better understanding of the security situation in the region. India is already coordinating with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran in this matter. Perhaps, the countries can also establish a port facility arrangement to support the Indian naval operations – refuelling and replenishment.
Lastly, there is immense scope to developing military-to-military ties between India and Qatar. This can be developed through regular exchange of military delegations, army chief’ visits, organising training capsules in Indian and Qatari military schools, and regular interactions among the army officials to understand each other’s threat perceptions. The recent visit by General Naravane, Chief of Army Staff to Saudi Arabia and UAE in December 2020, signals that military cooperation between India and the Gulf is no longer an unimaginable task.
Given the evolving nature of Indian defence industry, there is potential for establishing cooperation in defence manufacturing and exports. India is one of the largest military spending nations in the world. The budget allocation for the financial year 2020-21 is US$62.85 billion and is expected to rise exponentially in next few years due to measures implemented by the government since 2014. New Delhi is making efforts to get Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) where the investing foreign firm can have ownership up to 100% in defence manufacturing. The opening of the defence sector for private sector participation will help the foreign entities to enter a strategic partnership with Indian country.
On various occasions, the Modi administration has enunciated that there is need to develop cooperation with other countries in this area with the framework of “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar Bharat.” New Delhi’s extensive defence modernisation plan can be an attractive market for Doha. India can display its manufacturing capabilities and develop confidence among Qatar defence authorities. To begin with, India can start with inviting Qatari companies to Defence Expo, exhibitions, etc., to seek its investment and explore the possibility of cooperation. Few other areas defence and security cooperation may include extradition treaty, training and humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and artificial intelligence.
To conclude, there is a need for sustained efforts, investment, greater synergy and coordination between India and Qatar. Scope in defence and security cooperation is immense, given the growing intent and burgeoning need on both the sides. Such areas can be explored for enhancing cooperation between India and Qatar.
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