June 13, 2017 12:45 AM NPT
Qatar diplomatic crisis
Many factors are at play in the unfolding diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. The history of geopolitical tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia—the two main actors in the escalating crisis—is also long. It will hence be premature to speculate on the fate of around 400,000 Nepalis currently working in Qatar. Yet we also see no reason for alarm.
Sitting on a foreign currency reserve of over US $37 billion, Qatar, whose total GDP is worth $166 billion, is unlikely to panic. At the start of the current crisis, on June 6, a group of seven countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, had cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of abetting terrorism. The seven countries have demanded, among other things, that Qatar servers its ties with Iran (the main regional rival of Saudi Arabia) and shuts down its global television news channel, Al jazeera (which the Saudis accuse of sponsoring terrorism). But Qatar is unlikely to buckle easily under this pressure. Qatar relies a lot on imports, but its top three import partners are the US, France and the UK, and Qatar’s relations with them remain intact. True, food imports via the land border with Saudi Arabia will be hampered, but even in this case Iran will step in to help Qatar meet some of the shortfall.
So the fears that works on the stadiums and other associated infrastructures for the 2022 FIFA World Cup that Qatar is hosting—and on which hundreds of thousands of Nepalis are working—could stall are perhaps overblown. With its deep chest of foreign reserves, Qatar will keep pumping money into these pride projects for the foreseeable future. Nor is there much of a risk of Nepalis working elsewhere in the Gulf being immediately affected by the Qatari crisis. Yet what is happening out there also offers a cautionary tale of perils of overreliance on remittance. Historically, the Middle East has been a complex and volatile region. So there will always be some risk to the jobs of Nepalis working there.
After the revelations about the wretched work conditions of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar published in The Guardian in 2013, Nepal has been active in pursuing better work conditions for its workers. It has also tightened the screws around unscrupulous manpower agencies that cheat migrants.
But there is a limit to what the country can do in case of the workers who are willing to bear hardship abroad to earn a decent life for their family. The one and only sustainable solution would be massive job creation back in Nepal, so that these people don’t have to go at all. But the first condition for this kind of job creation is political stability, which in turn is only possible if all three sets of planned elections take place on time; for this will be the truest test of the implementation of the new constitution. This is why timely elections are so important. Immediately, frankly, there is little Nepal can do in the case of its workers in Qatar. In the worst case scenario, it might have to evacuate them. Yet the Nepali embassies based in the Middle East have so far given no hint that such desperate measures might be required. So, again, let us keep a close eye on the developments in Qatar but let us not panic either.