The Qatar Crisis: The blockade

A diplomatic crisis is shaking the Arab world, as six Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia have suspended diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017, and have accused the energy-rich state of sponsoring terrorism and interfering with their internal affairs. However, Qatar is far from being the only country in the region whose covert interventions have had negative consequences. So, what is the Qatar crisis all about and why is Saudi Arabia, all of a sudden, starting a bloodless declaration of war against Qatar?

The blockade against Qatar

While the true motivations behind the current diplomatic crisis are not immediate, contemporary news coverage agencies primarily attribute this blockade against Qatar to several events that took place in earlier this year.

In April 2017, Qatar was involved in a deal with both Sunni and Shia militants in Iraq and Syria. The deal had two goals: the immediate one was to secure the return of 26 Qatari hostages, including Qatari royals who had been kidnapped by Shia militants, and the second one was to get both Sunni and Shia militants in Syria to allow humanitarian aid to pass through, as well as to allow the safe evacuation of civilians. What outraged Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the amount of money Qatar had to pay to secure these deals: $700mn to Iranian-backed Shia militants in Iraq and another approximately $220mn to Syrian militia.

In May 2017, the Qatar News Agency website and several other government media platforms were allegedly hacked. Several comments made by the head of state, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani were published, containing remarks that favoured the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. The story was quickly deleted, but regardless of whether the quotes were fabricated or not, they have triggered a response from neighbouring governments and accusations were made by both sides. Shortly thereafter, Qatar’s state-funded broadcaster, Al Jazeera, published a news report about an email hack of a UAE ambassador and showed the email which he had written to the United State. The leak revealed evidence of a clear collaboration between the UAE and pro-Israeli groups to downgrade the image of Qatar as a regional and global power, including collusion with journalists who have published articles accusing Qatar and Kuwait of supporting terrorism. After this incident, by the 6th of June 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the Saudi-sponsored government in Yemen, Egypt, the Maldives – which have close financial ties with UAE – and Bahrain, all separately announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar. Kuwait and Omen remained neutral.

It is worth noting that the claim about Qatar sponsoring terrorism arrived several weeks after President Trump’s illuminating visit to Saudi Arabia and, during the same day, the United States issued conflicting statements about Qatar. While Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, called for a “calm and thoughtful dialogue” to ease tensions amongst the Sunni Muslim states in the Persian Gulf, not even an hour later, President Trump commented that Qatar funded terrorism at a “very high level” and demanded that they put an end to it and join the rest of the non-terrorist-funding nations, like Saudi Arabia (who in fact, as it was revealed in Hillary Clinton’s emails, funded terrorism alongside Qatar). Moreover, during the Riyadh Summit in late May 2017, President Trump gave strong support for Saudi Arabia’s efforts in fighting against states and groups allied with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, which may have induced the other Sunni states to fall in line and take a stance against Qatar.

As soon as these diplomatic break-offs were announced, the Saudi security forces blocked the entrance to Qatar’s land border and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE notified ports not to receive Qatari vessels or ships. As a small country in the East of the Arabian Peninsula and West of the Persian Gulf, Doha’s dependency on food imports is its greatest vulnerability, especially because nearly 80% of Qatar’s food requirements come from Gulf Arab neighbours and only 1% is produced domestically. Even the imports from outside the Gulf states usually crossed the land borders with Saudi Arabia. As a response, the isolated Doha turned to Iran and Turkey for food supplies, and to Omani ports to keep some of its construction supplies flowing. On the 11th of June 2017, Iran has sent four cargo planes with fruits and vegetables and although the country has promised to continue its supply, a sharp increase in food prices is unavoidable.

Business and commercial flights between Qatar and the countries in the blockade have also been prohibited to enter in each other’s country. This travel embargo has had a significant impact on foreign nationals living and working in Qatar, with about 100,000 citizens from these countries being stranded there, unable to book flights or obtain travel documents for their return. For example, Pakistan International Airlines had to send special flights to bring back over 200 Pakistani pilgrims stuck at the Doha Airport. Finally, the airspace restrictions on Qatar Airways have also caused the state-owned company to lose 19 destinations and reroute its flights to Africa and Europe via Iran.

Meanwhile, all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries involved in the announcement, gave Qatari diplomats 48 hours to return to Qatar, while citizens had a two-weeks deadline to do the same. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, all blocked access to Qatar’s news agencies, including the most popular Al Jazeera. Moreover, both UAE’s and Bahrain’s governments announced that publishing expressions of sympathy towards Qatar through social media or any type of written or verbal form is considered illegal and will have to be sanctioned with 3 to 15 years of imprisonment and a fine worth of $100,000. Finally, Saudi Arabia’s Central Bank has advised its banks not to trade with Qatari banks.

The financial effect of all these measures led to a 7.3% drop of the Qatar’s stock market on the first day of the crisis and it reached to 9.7%, by the 8th of June.

Tensions in the region were also intensified with the leak of a secret 2013-14 Riyadh Accord between Gulf states, that called for non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and an end to the support of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. The blockade said it launched the embargo because Qatar continued to ignore the accord. Doha responded by saying that it was its neighbours who broke the accord by launching a blockade, rather than using the agreement’s mediation mechanism.

Multiple countries like India, Indonesia, Russia, the UK and the United Nations called for the resolution of the diplomatic crisis through dialogue, while Germany’s foreign minister expressed support for Qatar and criticised the severing of the ties and President Trump’s involvement in steering the conflict in the Middle East. Pakistan stated that it had no plans to cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, while the Philippines temporarily suspended the deployment of migrant workers to Qatar.

The Saudi-led blockade sent Qatar a list of 13 demands which includes, severing ties with terrorist groups, downgrading ties with arch-rival Iran, closing a Turkish air base in Qatar and shutting down the Al Jazeera satellite channel. The deadline for this ultimatum ended on the 3rd of July 2017, but so far, Qatar has rejected these demands, denying sponsoring extremism and saying that “the world is not governed by ultimatums”. Ahead of this deadline, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani responded: “We are not going to accept anything that infringes on our sovereignty or anything that is imposed on Qatar”. He also said that “the world is governed by international laws, that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries”, adding that his country did not fear any military retaliation and that he believed wisdom would eventually prevail.

Meanwhile, Qatar cannot survive in a volatile neighbourhood without a security guarantor to preserve its sovereignty. The falling-out between the US and Qatar appears to have had a sobering impact on Qatar’s leaders, who, evidently fearing that any show of weakness might lead to their overthrow and even death, began to strengthen their ties with the opposing camp. The importance of Iran to the Saudi-Qatar conflict has been slightly demonstrated by Iran’s willingness to help Qatar face the Saudi blockade. Turkey’s President Erdogan also came out strongly in support of Qatar and went so far as to reaffirm the Turkey-Qatar military alliance and to send troops to Qatar. Similarly, Pakistan decided to send a military force there. Collectively, these actions have shown both the extent of anti-Saudi sentiment in the region and the limits of the US influence, and are likely sufficient to dissuade any Saudi military adventurism. At this stage, it would take a direct US military intervention to bring down the Qatari government, but the US clearly prefers to act through proxies.

There is more to this story

Several interesting features of the conflict immediately jump out to suggest that this blockade was actually a premeditated move by Saudi Arabia and its partners. First of all, there were no major recent provocative policy moves or signs of ongoing, visible disputes between neighbours, that would call for such extreme accusations against Qatar. While these oil-rich, autocratic OPEC members, have historically been at most, allies of convenience, united by common fears – USSR, Saddam Hussein, Iran, etc – their mutual distrust has arguably never escalated to a point of demanding what amounts to be a complete surrender by one of its members. And while the United States’ exact role in the crisis is unclear, it is very unlikely that Saudi Arabia would have undertaken something so drastic without coordinating with the US, especially since these sanctions came immediately after President Trump’s high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia. Finally, the sheer scale of the media spectacle in Saudi Arabia suggests that the campaign to discredit Qatar was already planned ahead.

What is even more surprising about this sudden move is that Saudi Arabia itself has allegedly backed radical groups and individuals in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen and the same controversy applies to UAE, Iran, Turkey, Russia and even the United States. So, there are no innocents in this geopolitical struggle and it has become apparent from the nature of this crisis that tensions have more to do with the long-standing conflicts in the region, rather than outright security.

Having this in mind, where are the roots of this blockade against Qatar? Who coordinated this ample plan against Qatar and what role did the United States play in this crisis? Which are the opposing forces in the region and what are their interests? Could there be more to the story than just the Saudis’ desire to change the status quo in the region and diminish Qatar’s global influence? How did Qatar even become so powerful?

Next read: “The Qatar Crisis: Digging deeper into the roots of the conflictLocated in the Persian Gulf, Qatar was a small country, almost completely covered by desert, which at that time was one of the poorest and most uninhabitable places on Earth. Yet, from a country that could barely survive on its fishing industry, Qatar has undergone a remarkable transformation once the old Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (who abdicated in 2013) staged a coup d’état against his father, back in 1996. When he reached power, he had a very clear idea about how the future of the country should look like: Qatar had to start exploiting their huge fields of natural gas and they needed to claim their identity and gain international influence, in order to survive. Otherwise, any conflict with Riyadh could compromise the independence of the country.

Although the North Field, the biggest treasure of this country and the largest gas field in the world, was discovered back in the beginning of the 1970s, at the time, natural gas was not that profitable, as it could only be transported through gas pipelines and Qatar was relatively isolated from the rest of the world. However, the old Emir decided to invest enormous quantities of resources in the underdeveloped and rare technology of liquefaction, which could bring the natural gas to a liquid form that could easily be transported using large ships, as if it were oil. With this technology, Qatar manged to achieve the cheapest costs of extraction and the country quickly became the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG). In fact, last year, three quarters of Qatar’s gas went to Asian countries like China, India, South Korea and Japan.

And there is more to Qatar’s recipe for success. Unlike other resource-rich countries like Venezuela or Angola, who rely solely on oil to support their economy, Qatar has attempted to diversify its economy by recycling some of the income from oil and gas to invest in other markets, both nationally and internationally. Qatar has spent billions on highways, ports, airports, research centres and financial centres in order to transform Doha, the capital, into a sea of skyscrapers, malls and luxurious cars. Qatar has also created a huge fund, worth of over $330 billion – known as “Qatar’s Power” – which has made significant investments all over the globe. In 2016, Qatar was the fourth largest office investor in the United States and one of the largest shareholder of companies such as Volkswagen, Barclays Bank, Tiffany & Co. and Shell. Qatar has also spent about a billion dollars to build the military bases needed to host about 11,000 US military personnel in 2003, when Saudi Arabia requested American troops to leave their country.

As a result of all these decisions, Qatar has been the world’s richest nation on a per-capita purchasing power parity basis, since 1998 and, because of its huge wealth, Qatar started to gain global influence and managed to completely separate itself from and challenge Riyadh’s purview.

The movement consisted in a wave of mass political protests in the region that called for government reforms and long-time dictators to step down. For instance, Tunisia’s president fled his country and sought haven in Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s president also stepped down from power. Yemen’s president was injured in an attack and sought treatment in Saudi Arabia before returning to Yemen, only to step down from power, and Libya’s president was captured and killed by rebel fighters in his hometown. Saudi Arabia was also not immune to such protests, as a small region in the East, called Qatif, has experienced massive unrest over the last few decades and especially in the wake of recent protests. It is worth noting that all of these power shifts in the Middle East happened within just one year and all these regional leaders who remained in power, or gained control shortly after the protests, have blamed Qatar for supporting a number of Islamist groups who took part in the protests.

Qatar was accused of using their abundant wealth to support radical groupings, Taliban insurgents, Syrian generals, Somali Islamists, Sudanese rebels, militants of Hamas and even members of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, as already mentioned above, most of the big players in the region have been suspected for supporting terrorist organisations themselves, therefore, the issue here was really that Qatar’s foreign policies were at odds with those of Saudi Arabia and its partners. For instance, when Riyadh reduced its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, Doha and Ankara stepped up and compensated. When the Saudis endorsed Field Marshal Haftar in Libya, the Qatari did the opposite and promoted the Islamist militias in Tripoli. Evidently, Qatar’s network of radical organisations has upset many nations. But, from a Qatari perspective, by becoming an indispensable mediator and enabler of back-channel diplomacy, the country gained leverage over other players who seek to control the behaviour of these groups.

Another major point of tension between the two nations is Qatar’s growing cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s primary regional enemy, Iran. But why is Iran so relevant in the Saudi-Qatari conflict?

Qatar shares its largest gas reserve, the North Field, with Iran, and in April 2017, after a 12-year freeze, Qatar finally lifted the self-imposed ban on developing the gas field with Iran. This would require cooperation between the two countries and the implied cash tie prompted Qatar to promote a regional policy of engagement with Shia Iran. Interestingly, Iran deals in Yuan, or the Chinese dollar, rather than the US petrodollar for its oil-related business. A scenario in which Qatar would suddenly decide to follow suit, effectively means that there would be a stronger rival to the petrodollar, which could potentially compromise the monopoly asserted by the US over the global financial markets and benefit rising powers like China and Russia.