• August 15th, 2020

Opinion - How the blockade on Qatar created a resilient state

On 5 June 2017, Arab states led by Saudi Arabia severed all diplomatic ties with Qatar. Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia imposed a land, sea and air embargo on Doha to impel the Middle East state to alter its foreign policy. The adversarial move marked the beginning of a lengthy crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism and terrorist organisations was cited as the main reason for the blockade. The blockading coalition charged that Doha had violated a 2014 agreement with the members of the GCC. Also mentioned in the reasons were Qatar’s relations with the Islamic State of Iran and the existence of Al Jazeera. Qatari planes and ships were banned from using the airspace and sea routes of the blockading states with Saudi Arabia closing the only land border crossing that Qatar has and expelling all Qatari citizens from Riyadh. 
The unified move by Saudi Arabia and its allies was meant to lead to the economic shrink and subsequent collapse of the Qatari government. Thirteen demands were put forward to Qatar in exchange for lifting the blockade. The demands included shutting down the state backed Al Jazeera media network and all affiliated media outlets, curbing diplomatic ties with Iran and closing diplomatic missions in Iran, immediately terminating the Turkish military presence in Doha, paying reparations and compensation for the loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies, to agree to the demands within 10 days and to consent to monthly audits for the first year of agreeing to the demands. If anything compares well, the demands were akin to the First World War (WWI) Treaty of Versailles to which the conquered Germany was forced to agree. It was only a matter of time before these WWI tactics proved futile.

Contrary to its neighbours’ unfriendly behaviour, Qatar leaders did not adopt retaliatory measures but instead called for dialogue with its neighbours. 4 days after the embargo was imposed, the Qatari foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani headed to the Russian Federation where he held talks with foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an effort to garner support from Moscow. In an interview to the media, on 8 June 2017 Qatar’s foreign minister vowed never to ‘surrender the independence of our foreign policy’ despite heightened pressure from blockading states. Amid speculation and fears of a Saudi invasion, Turkey’s parliament ratified two deals which led to the deployment of more Turkish troops in Qatar on top of the number of troops that were already stationed there. All these were efforts to deter any possible invasion of Qatar and Turkey has stood by the country ever since. Qatar has also gone on to strengthen its military defences.

In the months that followed, the country looked to strengthen its relations with powerful countries such as Turkey, Russia, Iran and the United States. The option for diplomacy as opposed to tit-for-tat action by Qatar might have contributed greatly to the scale of solidarity it acquired from the international community. For the remainder of 2017, the Emir of Qatar began a series of visits to different countries around the world for global support and to remind old friends that Doha was open to the world. From September 2017 onwards, the Emir visited Turkey, Germany, France and the United States. Among the regions he visited in 2017 include Southeast Asia and West Africa. Despite the blockading states’ intension to isolate their neighbour, Doha had now renewed old and forged new ties with the international community. In January 2019 Qatar terminated its membership to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), an organisation that is largely seen as being under the command of the Saudis, in a bid to accentuate its independence from the Saudi Arabia. 

GDP figures since the blockade was imposed have shown an upward trajectory. Qatar’s GDP currently stands at around US$200 billion and in 2017 it had over US$300 billion in sovereign wealth funds, making it much easier for the country to sanction economic stimulus funds to diversify the economy. The country has a population of over 2.7 million people, of which just over 300 000 are citizens, making it the world’s richest country on a per capita basis. Soon after the announcement of the blockade a businessman vowed to fly 4000 dairy cows to the desert county with the first 165 cows arriving in Qatar from Germany in July 2017. More cows were flown from the US and Australia thereafter. Turkey and Iran imports also filled the Qatari supermarkets with fresh produce within 48 hours of the blockade.

Qatar, which was one of OPEC’s smallest producers of oil is the biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the world. Since the blockade, the country adopted policies to diversify its economy to boost self-sufficiency. With an economy dominated by oil and gas, Qatar increased its construction activities with large infrastructure projects to stimulate economic activity. Manufacturing was also increased as the country looked to boost its economic independence. Massive investments in crop production to amplify food production also took off. Nasser Al Khalaf, CEO of Qatar’s AGRICO Agriculture Company said in an Al Jazeera interview in June 2020 that his company produced less than 10% of fruits and vegetables three years ago but production now stands at almost 30%. Prior to the blockade, the country was importing nearly 90% of its food products. Though it is believed that Qatar has incurred financial losses estimated at US$43 billion due to the blockade, the country has shown signs of resilience in different ways.

On 5 June 2020, Qatar marked three straight years of the blockade with no sign of giving in on its sovereignty. With its wealth and good leadership, the tiny country appears to have managed to orbit its way out of the proscription fairly well. 

•Ricky Simasiku is a global politics scholar. Views are personal and not of my employer.

Staff Reporter
2020-06-18 09:43:34 | 1 months ago

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