Last August, just weeks ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, eight retired Indian Navy officers were arrested in Doha by Qatari intelligence. The men, working as contractors for the Qatari Emiri Navy, have been held in solitary confinement ever since then.

Why they’ve been detained: Multiple Indian news outlets — including The Tribune and The Print — now report that the men as well as several Qatari nationals have been charged with spying for Israel. The charges have not been formally made public. And these claims have not been confirmed by the Indian or Qatari governments or third parties willing to speak on the record. But the prolonged nature of the detention of these men and a shift in Indian news coverage of the story give weight to the espionage angle.

What were they allegedly spying on? Praveen Swami, an investigative journalist with The Print, citing an unnamed Indian intelligence officer, writes that Qatar claims to “have intercepted electronic communications” proving that the ex-Indian naval officers spied on the Qatari submarine program and passed on the intelligence to Israel. Some sources say this could be related to Italian midget submarines reportedly being built for the Qatari Emiri Navy.

What we do know is that the eight Indian contractors worked for an Omani company Dahra Global Technology and Services. The company, owned by Khamis Al-Ajmi — an Omani national — says it provides a range of defense consultancy services to clients in the Gulf Coordination Council region. India has a close defense relationship with Oman.

The issue is clearly very sensitive. Indian officials remain tight-lipped. Last year, India’s top diplomat S. Jaishankar told parliament, “The detention of our ex-servicemen in Qatar is foremost in our mind,” but offered no specifics on their cases.


India’s hyper-nationalist media outlets like Republic and Times Now have been uncharacteristically muted on the story. If the men were arrested in Pakistan, there would be wall-to-wall coverage with anchors like Arnab Goswami shouting at the top of their lungs. Officials in India’s Hindu nationalist government also don’t hesitate to take on the West. Yet they are very careful on this issue — which may reflect recognition of some wrongdoing by the arrested Indian nationals.

What we don’t know: a lot. The Indian media is notoriously unreliable on defense and security issues. Its reporters rely on leaks from the government and often willfully disseminate its disinformation. So Indian reportage should be taken with a grain of salt. On this issue, the reporting from India has been highly inconsistent.

For much of the past eight months, Indian news outlets, citing unnamed governmental sources, have denied that the men were arrested for spying, describing such claims as Pakistani disinformation, even though Iranian and Israeli news reports, citing Qatari media, were among the first to state that the contractors were allegedly working for Mossad.

But now many of these same outlets are reporting that the men have indeed been charged with spying for Israel.

What the Indian reporting leaves out is the question of what role, if any, did New Delhi have in this affair. If the men were indeed spying for Israel, was this just a single-country operation? Or were the intelligence services of other countries, including India, involved?

On this note, it’s worth mentioning that Deepak Mittal, the Indian ambassador to Qatar, was posted back in New Delhi prematurely last month at a serious juncture in the bilateral relationship. There are also unconfirmed claims that Captain Mohan Atla, the Indian defense attache, was sent back home. His name no longer appears on the Indian embassy website, though it was listed on the contact page in December.

What to watch out for: The second hearing for the detained Indians is scheduled for May 3, 2023. Will the charges be made public?

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.


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