BY PRABASI NEPALI
According to a report in this journal last week, there has been some controversy regarding the official four-day visit by the President of the Democratic Secular Republic of Nepal Madam Bidya Devi Bhandari to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Furthermore, according to official communications, the visit took place at the invitation of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It may be recalled that the UAE is a federation of 7 autonomous emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ash Shariqah, Ra’s al-Khaymah, Ajman, Al-Fujaayrah, Umm al-Qaywayn, of which the first two are the most populous, richest and prominent.
This journal also disclosed that the report took place against the advice of the incumbent prime minister, Shri Sher Bahadur Deuba. Without fear and favour, it can be said that the advice had cogent reasons. First, it took place at a very tense situation in the [Persian] Gulf region. Some months back, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia and comprising in addition Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, a comprehensive blockade was imposed on Qatar. This was against the tenets of international law and the multilateral pact known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). All the blockading countries, excepting Egypt, are members, like Qatar, of the GCC. Fabricated reasons were cited.
Second, it must be remembered that the President Bhandari is only a ceremonial head of state. Without exception, the advice of the PM, the political executive should have been binding, in such an important matter pertaining to Nepal’s foreign policy and also impacting on grave economic matters. Perhaps President Bhandari and her close advisers considered PM Deuba only a lame duck head of government, whose advice could be ignored without any political repercussions. Surely, if parliamentary and provincial elections were not around the corner, this would not have been the case. Her action defying the PM’s advice was definitely against constitutional norms.
Third, Bhandari’s impromptu visit was also against diplomatic protocol. She should have only accepted the invitation of the head of state of the UAE and not of only the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, a constituent state (emirate) of the federation. What were Ms Bhandari and her advisers thinking on embarking on such a trip?
Fourth, the visit was planned in haste. It has been established that the invitation was extended only about a week before the President embarked on her visit and the agenda was of little import. She had an official meeting In Abu Dhabi with the Crown Prince and met with the Nepalese community in the Emirate of Dubai – nothing much to write home about. It more or less added up to a pleasure junket. Perhaps, the highpoint of the trip was a ‘shopping spree’ in the fabled Middle Eastern hub!
Fifth, the hastily executed trip had no positive tangible outcome(s). In order to highlight the so-called importance of the low-intensity “official visit”, the Nepalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) billed it as coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Nepal and the UAE. If so, there was no state function with luminaries from both countries to mark the occasion – neither in the UAE or Nepal! Thus the statement was just an implausible attempt to hoodwink an unsuspecting Nepalese public. Sadly, it seems that this explanation was swallowed by Nepalese foreign policy ‘experts’.
Sixth, the Emirate of Qatar with which Nepal had very cordial relations is bound to interpret the visit to Abu Dhabi with consternation. Although life in general has not been affected much in Qatar, the free movement of families and people has been disrupted. Qatar Airways has had to re-evaluate and divert some of its routes in the countries exerting the illegal land, sea and air embargo against the Emirate of Qatar.
As such, the more than 400,000 Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar have not been affected by the embargo. If this was in any way justified, other Gulf countries like Kuwait and Oman would also have participated. Moreover, if ‘the Gang of Four’ — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt (the last is obviously not a Gulf country) — start armed hostilities against Qatar (which is quite possible in the tense situation in the region), the fate of these migrant workers would hang in the balance. In the worst case scenario, they would lose their jobs, leading to a dramatic plunge in remittances to Nepal with very detrimental effects for their families and our economy in general. Our very clever bureaucrats were, of course, not so far-sighted.
In the meantime, the government of Qatar has initiated some landmark reforms for its foreign workforce. It has set a temporary minimum wage for migrant workers worth some US Dollar 200 a month, a benchmark reform following criticism of its preparations for the 2022 FIFA Football World Cup. This temporary minimum wage will come into effect immediately, while officials work on setting a permanent rate. In addition to the new salary, workers will also receive free accommodation, food and healthcare plans, covered by employers. Among other major workplace reforms in the pipeline are a requirement to
lodge job contracts with the government, preventing changes to contract terms after the arrival of workers in Qatar, and terminating the right of employers to stop their staff from leaving the country or changing jobs. Such employee-friendly work conditions are still long away in other Gulf countries where Nepalese migrant workers are currently seeking a livelihood.
Seventh, Ms. Bhandari and her advisers have demonstrated that they have little knowledge of what is actually happening in the Gulf Region/West Asia. The ill-timed visit could have grave repercussions for Nepal’s foreign policy in the region and also for its domestic economy. Most Middle East pundits are of the opinion that Saudi Arabia at the present moment is engaged in a far more aggressive foreign policy than was the case previous to the elevation of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The main target is generally the sectarian Shia groups, movements and areas, and particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch Shiite enemy in the region. Thus, the main reason why Qatar was targeted by the Saudi-led coalition was because of its cordial relations with Iran. But Qatar is compelled to follow such a course because it shares the rich oil and gas fields in the [Persian] Gulf with Iran. Close economic and technical cooperation is, therefore, compelling. Saudi Arabia is vastly overstretching its foreign policy and security capabilities. Its recent actions in the Gulf against Qatar, but also in Yemen and Lebanon has now led to an unpredictable and inflammable moment in the Middle East.
In a resolution long on condemnation but short on concrete steps, foreign ministers of the Arab League who met in Cairo last Sunday delivered a trade of denunciation against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah (the Shia front) saying Tehran was destabilizing the region. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir who led the charge, asked fellow Arab nations (predominantly Sunni) to take a “serious and honest” stand against Iranian “aggression” and “meddling” in the internal affairs of Arab countries. He also added: “showing leniency toward Iran will not leave any Arab capital safe from [Iranian] ballistic missiles.” It was both a call for unity and beating the drums of war!
President’s Foolhardy Official Visit to the UAE
BY PRABASI NEPALI