The arrest of eight former Indian naval officers in Qatar came to light when the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India termed it a “high priority” issue. In August 2022, Qatari authorities took the former naval officers into custody on unspecified charges. After months of detention, the Qatari authorities revealed that these former naval officers were spying on Qatar’s secret submarine program for Israel. However, keeping in view the India-Israel relationship, similar past incidents and the government’s proactive pursual, it is likely that these officers were working at the behest of the Indian government. It is also significant to explore how the whole incident affects the relationship between Qatar and India.
It is important to note that these Indian nationals worked at Qatar’s Dahra Global Technologies and Consulting Services. It is a private company that offers training and various other services to the defence and security agencies of Qatar. Moreover, Dahra Technologies is a local partner in Qatar’s secret project to obtain Italian submarines, and reportedly Qatar is in the process of acquiring the submarines. Following the incident, Dahra Global is being shut down, and all the Indian employees have been asked to resign. The majority of these individuals, over seventy-five in number, consist of former Indian Navy personnel. They have been notified that their employment with Dahra will terminate on May 31, 2023.
In this context, Qatar will likely procure U212 advanced submarines capable of avoiding radar detection. It is worth noting that after procuring the submarines, Qatar will become the second country after Iran to operate submarines in the Persian Gulf. This submarine project is part of an agreement between Qatar and Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri that also includes naval base construction and supply of naval vessels. It is essential to highlight that Qatar and Italy signed a five-billion-euro defence deal in 2017. Later in 2020, Qatar and an Italian defence company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to supply defence equipment to Qatar. It is currently unclear which agreement the submarine deal was actually part of. However, it is most likely that this project is part of the 2017 defence deal, as reports suggest that MoU signed in 2020 is yet to be implemented.
After months of detention, the Qatari authorities revealed that these former naval officers were spying on Qatar’s secret submarine program for Israel.
At the time of arrest, Qatari authorities did not disclose the charges. However, later, the spying charges were revealed, which took the region as well as India by surprise. Moreover, Qatar told the Indian authorities about the digital evidence of espionage for Israel. It is pertinent to note that Indian authorities are making extensive efforts to secure the release of these eight officers despite Qatar’s emphasis on trial. Following the arrest, a high-ranking Indian official visited Qatar to secure the release of the officers. Additionally, the Indian MEA acknowledged that India is making efforts for the early release of the former naval officers. Apart from this, India and Israel have a long-standing relationship, and both countries have proven intelligence cooperation. In this context, Qatar’s procurement of advanced submarines is likely to be a game-changer in the region. Israel has concerns over the submarine deal because it could potentially erode Tel Aviv’s military superiority over its Arab rivals. Thus, it can be argued that the Indian officers spied on Qatar’s submarine project at the behest of the Indian intelligence agency, while Israel was the ultimate beneficiary. These instances suggest that these spies worked for the Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Moreover, this was not the only incident where Indian spies were apprehended on foreign land; there have been incidents in the past where Indian nationals, including military personnel, were arrested on espionage charges. One such incident occurred in 2014 when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) arrested and later convicted two Indians for providing sensitive information about the UAE to Indian intelligence. It was proved that convicted spies were in contact with officers from the Indian embassy in UAE. Similarly, in 2019, a German court convicted an Indian couple living in Germany of spying. The couple confessed their affiliation with Indian RAW and acknowledged gathering and supplying information about Kashmiri and Sikh individuals residing in Germany to the Indian intelligence agency. Additionally, in March 2016, Pakistani authorities arrested a serving Indian Naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, from the Pakistani province of Balochistan, on charges of facilitating terrorist activities and spying for the Indian intelligence agency, RAW. Also, Mr Jadhav confessed to his crimes after the arrest. Apart from this, there have been a number of cases where Pakistan arrested Indian spies involved in malicious activities inside Pakistan. Keeping in view the history of such incidents, it is most likely that the arrested naval officers in Qatar were working for Indian intelligence, and the Indian government had a role in this espionage attempt.
It is pertinent to note that presently India and Qatar have good relations, and there has been cooperation between both countries in various domains, including defence and economy. However, this incident might have repercussions for bilateral ties between both countries. In case the involvement of the Indian government proves, which is most likely to happen, Qatar might choose to reassess the nature of its relationship with India. This could potentially lead to a diplomatic strain and might lead to stricter scrutiny of Indian activities within Qatar.