Tensions in the Persian Gulf | Sunday Observer

Tensions in the Persian Gulf

Many Sri Lankans with kin and friends in employment in the Persian Gulf region are watching the on-going crisis between Persian Gulf states with much concern. Even as the crisis between states in the region broke out last week, the Foreign Affairs Ministry made pronouncements that our missions in the region are closely monitoring the situation.

The issues raised between those contending governments are matters of their foreign and domestic policy and is best discussed by those governments and their citizens. What concerns Sri Lankans and the kin of several million other foreign workers from across the world living in the Gulf is the effect of this sudden regional geo-political confrontation on their livelihoods and security.

The Persian Gulf, sadly, has been engulfed in inter-state and intra-state conflict for much of the last half century. Despite such situations, one or another part of this region, rich in mineral fuel deposits, millions of people from mainly developing Asia and Africa have sought employment in those newly-wealthy kingdoms around the southern coast of the Gulf. While Saudi Arabia, with over 400,000 Sri Lankan workers, is the largest host country for our workers, the various other small kingdoms in the Gulf region host over half a million.

In Qatar alone there are some 146,000 Sri Lankans, over a half of whom are housemaids. There are similar numbers of Sri Lankans in all of the other Gulf states, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Last week, in an escalation of a seeming disagreement on foreign policy between some of these Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE suddenly imposed severe economic sanctions against Qatar. While Egypt and The Maldives have also joined in this sanctions regime against Qatar, it is the sanctions disrupting links between the Gulf countries that are of prime concern for Sri Lankans and many other foreign workers in that region.

These sanctions have had several serious immediate effects. Tight controls have been imposed by this small coalition of states on air, sea and road transport between Qatar and the outside world. The suspension of shipping services with Qatar is affecting international exports and imports, especially, threatening the steady flow of oil and gas supplies to world markets. Blockade of food supplies could potentially cause a humanitarian crisis.

The world has experienced major conflagrations in the West Asia region as a whole, arising from the complex bilateral and multi-lateral tensions and internal conflicts afflicting that region. Overseas livelihood prospects of Sri Lankans have risen and fallen as these conflagrations occurred. The employment opportunities in some Gulf countries, notably Iraq and most recently Syria, are yet to recover from the internal wars that have broken out.

Still, over the past three decades, income from Sri Lankans in West Asia has been among the top four foreign exchange earners of our economy.

Successive governments have monitored and serviced this vital economic and demographic link between Sri Lanka and West Asia over a considerable period with limited success. As communications have improved, reaction time during crises is faster and coordination with other countries tighter, enabling Sri Lankans in the Gulf escape much of the devastation during the successive Gulf Wars.

It is vital that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works closely with our network of embassies and consulates in the embattled region to ensure early warning and quick servicing of affected Sri Lankans in the event of any emergencies. It is also to be hoped that Colombo is consulting with Delhi and other neighbouring capitals with far larger expatriate populations in Qatar and the Gulf region so that any emergency responses are coordinated.

At the same time, government authorities responsible for international shipping and trade and, most crucially, energy imports, should also monitor the evolving situation in the Gulf so that possible disruptions, especially, of fuel supplies, are anticipated.

At present it is Qatar that is immediately affected by these sanctions. A continuation of some of the sanctions is soon likely to have an impact on the daily life of the population.

With several Western powers as well as Russia already calling for restraint, the world community watches with much concern in the hope that already war-ravaged West Asia is not inflicted with yet another confrontation. In the past, the societies of West Asia have demonstrated much ability to ensure co-existence of cultures, religions and polities. Often it has been the intervention of foreign powers from outside the region that have spurred conflict.

Sri Lankans will hope that the leaderships of the countries involved in the crisis will persist with on-going diplomatic interactions to speedily resolve the conflict. The good offices of neighbouring powers will also be helpful in mediation.

The resolving of policy and strategy differences can only be resolved through consultation and mediation. One principle for such conflict resolution must be mutual respect for each government’s policy. Equally important must be sensitivity by governments to the effect of their own policies on other countries, the region and, where relevant, on the world community as a whole.

As a people who have learnt the value of negotiations over warfare, Sri Lankans will wish the Gulf nations well as they strive to overcome this latest challenge.