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Qatar blockade and Nepal

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017
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Out of every 20 people in Qatar, three are from Nepal. The country’s native population numbers only 313,000, and there are another 2.3 million expats – of whom 400,000 are Nepalis. In the last fiscal year alone, 130,000 Nepalis went to Qatar, and the numbers were increasing – till last week.

On 5 June, there were 495 Nepalis issued permits by the Foreign Employment Department to Qatar. Two days later on 7 June, only 25 permits were issued. Although Nepal has not officially banned Nepalis from going to Qatar as has the Philippines, most workers who were getting ready to fly out to Doha have either put off their plans, or decided not to go. Even those who had already booked tickets on flights from Kathmandu via stopovers in the UAE to Doha are stuck.

The exodus of Nepalis workers abroad had increased after the 2015 earthquake as many affected families needed to earn to rebuild their homes. But the impact of the Indian Blockade was far more devastating – as investments dwindled, jobs became even scarcer and economic growth plummeted to zero. Nepal’s economy is only now limping back to normal.

Ironically, Nepalis who essentially fled an Indian blockade of their country are now having to face a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. In many ways, the siege of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE and their allies is much more serious – it even includes a blockade of their air space to Qatari aircraft. Food and other essentials which used to be trucked into Qatar from Saudi and UAE ports by Nepali drivers have been stopped at the border, although the Saudis have let the drivers get back to Qatar now.

With Malaysia, Qatar is the most popular destination for Nepali workers overseas. Official annual remittances from countries other than India totalled Rs5.7 billion last year, and of this 17% was from Qatar. The reason Qatar is a popular destination is because of the relative ease with which visas and work permits can be organised, and despite negative media coverage workers there has relatively better protection now. There is also a preference among Qatari employers of Nepali unskilled workers who are regarded as being more docile. Indians make up the largest numbers of expats in Qatar, and Bangladesh is the fastest growing source country for workers there.

If the crisis drags on, Nepal is going to be hit in more ways than just declining numbers of workers going to Qatar. A regional flare up would mean that the estimated 700,000 other Nepalis in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE would also be affected. Oil prices are already showing volatility and this would affect Nepal’s petroleum imports from Indian Oil Corporation which sources its gas and crude from Qatar and other Gulf countries.

Nepal’s economic diplomacy in the Gulf, especially Qatar, needs to get into high gear. Nepali embassies in the region should be on high alert — proactively providing information and other assistance to workers in trouble. In the longer term, Nepal’s strategy must be to be less dependent on a remittance-based economy, and for that there is no alternative but to invest in large infrastructure projects to create jobs at home.

Kunda Dixit 

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