High diplomatic finesse shown by both India and Qatar, the soundness of the Qatari judicial system, and economic interdependence lay at the root of the Qatari Appeal Court’s order on Thursday commuting the death sentence passed on eight retired Indian naval personnel in a spying case.

Given the sensitivity of the case, and the importance of bilateral economic relations between India and Qatar, New Delhi’s approach to the case was subdued and measured. This was in sharp contrast to the belligerency displayed in the case of the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada.

Qatar, which in the recent past, had helped various nations cut deals to end festering conflicts, also showed its diplomatic skills to give friendly India a deal that is the best for it under the circumstances.

Both India and Qatar handled the case with care and understanding because of their economic interdependence. Indians, who account for 25% of Qatar’s population, contribute immensely to the economic welfare of the country. Indian professionals, accountants, engineers, managers, and skilled workers keep economic activity in the Emirate humming.

As a peaceful community immersed in making their careers, Indians in Qatar are highly respected by the locals and the government.

India imported a total 19.85 million tonnes of LNG in FY23 from various sources, of which 10.74 million tonnes, or 54%, came from Qatar.

Apart from the 8.5 million tonnes of LNG that Qatar supplied as part of the contract with India’s state-owned Petronet, nearly 2.25 million tonnes of additional gas was purchased from Qatar on spot basis.

India’s total imports (all goods included) from Qatar in FY 2022-23 were valued at US$ 16.81 billion, of which LNG imports were worth US$ 8.32 billion, or 49.5%.

India’s other major imports from Qatar were also fossil fuel-linked commodities and products, such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), plastics, and other petrochemicals.

Qatar’s imports from India were very much less. In 2022, Qatar’s imports from India stood at US$ 1.97 billion. India’s exports included cereals, copper articles, iron and steel articles, vegetables, fruits, spices, and processed food products.

But as pointed out earlier, Qatar gains immensely from the presence of more than 800,000 Indians in its territory. India in turn gains through remittances from these expats, which amount to US$ 4.1 billion a year.

Qatar has expressed confidence in India’s growth performance and potential as India became the fifth-largest economy, poised to be the third-largest. This is the reason why the Qatar Investment Agency (QIA) invested US$ 1.1 billion in Reliance Retail Ventures.

India too has expressed confidence in Qatar’s economic capabilities. Petronet LNG, India’s largest LNG importer, has a long-term contract with Qatar for the import of 8.5 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of LNG. In addition, Qatari gas has a sizable share in India’s LNG purchases in the spot market.

India’s ambitious plans for the use of natural gas in its energy mix also cements the bilateral relationship. India seeks to increase the share of natural gas in the primary energy mix to 15% by 2030 from a little more than 6% at present. This is bound to result in a rapid increase in LNG imports from Qatar in the coming years, commentators say.

LNG has advantages over petrol and diesel. One report on the subject says: “Natural gas is seen as a significantly cleaner alternative to conventional petroleum fuels like diesel and petrol, and is usually cheaper than crude oil. For India, which has an import dependency of over 85% in crude, gas is both more affordable and a better transition fuel in the energy transition pathway.”

The global LNG market has become a seller’s market after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions have disrupted Russian natural gas supplies to Europe. After the war broke out, prices, particularly of LNG spot cargoes, surged in the spot market.

But since India’s Petronet has a term agreement with Qatar, it is fortified against these volatilities. However, Petronet’s term contract runs out in 2028, and negotiations for an extension are currently under way, reports say.

India is also looking to sign more long-term LNG contracts with Qatar. Indian diplomats would have been aware of this aspect in their talks with the Qatari authorities in the naval officers’ case.

Former Indian diplomat, and an expert on West Asia, K.P. Fabian had predicted that the eight officers would never be executed and that the most likely ending would be either a commutation of the death sentence or pardon. According to him, the Qatari judicial system is quite balanced in contrast to those of other countries in West Asia.

In a recent write-up on the naval officers’ issue, Fabian pointed out that executions are rare in Qatar. “Qatar does not regularly execute individuals, unlike some of its neighbours. The last execution was in 2021 when a Nepalese daily wage worker who knifed to death a Qatari national was executed. The previous execution was 20 years before that.” According to him, Qatar has a fair legal system that delivers justice.

“In a case of espionage involving three Philippines, one of them working for Qatar General Petroleum was sentenced to death while two working for the Qatar Air Force were awarded life imprisonment. The Court of Appeals heard their case and revoked the death penalty and reduced the life sentences,” Fabian recalled.

Qatar is adept at diplomacy too, Fabian adds: “Under its 43-year-old ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatar handled with superb diplomatic skills the blockade imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others in 2017, leading to the lifting of the blockade in 2021.

“Qatar hosted the talks between the Taliban and the USA, leading to the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan in 2021. It played a crucial role in a recent deal between Iran and the US for the exchange of detainees.

“As part of that deal, Iran was able to recover US$ 6 billion held up in South Korea because of US sanctions. It is also mediating for the release of over 200 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza”.