Qatar blockade: Severed brotherhood, unshaken defiance

Qatar blockade: Severed brotherhood, unshaken defiance
Two years on, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt’s blockade of Qatar has largely failed to have an impact on Qatar's trajectory.
6 min read
05 June, 2019
The blockade has done little to shake Qatar's trajectory [Getty]

Qatar marked the second anniversary of a Saudi-led air, land and sea blockade on Wednesday, with many praising the Gulf state’s resilience despite the harsh embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate, Bahrain and Egypt.

The blockade has provided a new reality for the tiny Gulf emirate, Qatar’s Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani said for the 2-year anniversary.

“Two years have passed since the #QatarBlockade which has created a new reality as well as challenges that we’ve been able to overcome and move forward towards our achievements and projects,” the PM tweeted in Arabic.

“We affirm the solidity of our position and principles that the only solution to the #GulfCrisis is dialogue,” he added.

The two-year blockade began on 5 June 2017, just a few days after the Qatar News Agency (QNA) website was hacked and a fabricated report was published attributing false statements to the Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani designed to serve as a pretext to justify action against Doha by the Saudi-led quartet.

Soon after the hack, the false news attributed to QNA was broadcast on the UAE-based channels Al-Arabiya and Sky News Arabia with an array of guests lined up to comment.

An investigation later aired by the Al-Jazeera News Network found that a state-sponsored Saudi cell was likely responsible for the hack of the news agency and the UAE was linked to the event.

Gulf states ordered Qataris to leave within 14 days as well as calling home their own citizens, with the UAE announcing draconian jail terms of 15 years for anyone who expressed sympathy with Qatar.

The long list of demands included the closure of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and The New Arab, as well as sever relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, among other points.

Qatar, as expected, did not comply, and suggested the demands were an attempt to place the country’s domestic decision making and foreign relations under Saudi control.

But two years on, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt’s blockade of Qatar has largely failed to have an impact on the Qatari economy and Doha's relations with the wider world.

Just last week, Qatar participated in the Mecca summits as a "show of support" for a joint Arab-Islamic position, according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the country's deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, the first such time it attended a meeting with Gulf leaders in the kingdom since the blockade.

Just a month earlier in April, Qatar said it filed three lawsuits in London and New York against Saudi and UAE banks for plotting to undermine its currency and bonds.

Doha, which has faced an economic and diplomatic blockade by Gulf rivals and Egypt since June 2017, also filed legal action in London against the Luxemburg-based Banque Havilland.

Qatar's lawsuits were filed based on an investigation launched by Doha into market manipulation by the blockading countries.

Doha has already taken legal action against the four countries before the International Court of Justice, International Civil Aviation Organisation and World Trade Organisation.

Doha claimed that the boycotting countries' actions "were designed to destabilise Qatar's currency and financial markets in order to undermine confidence in Qatar's economy".

Qatari authorities, including the ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani have consistently maintained the Gulf state has become stronger despite the ongoing blockade.

'Stronger than ever'

Qatari authorities, including the ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani have consistently maintained the Gulf state has become stronger despite the ongoing blockade.

"The citizens have defended the dignity and the truth, with the consequences of strengthening the country,” Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani said during the formal grand opening of the country's $434 million national museum earlier this year.

Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani, chair of Qatar Museums and a member of the royal family, said the blockade had not delayed the museum's opening date.

"The blockade hasn't affected us one bit," she told AFP during a preview tour of the museum.

"We are very proud and happy and, in fact, all the people are welcome to this museum and we remain open to the rest of the world," she said.

The severed ties also prompted Qatar to search for new friends in the region. 

In January, Qatar made a comeback in the Levant, with the Gulf state's emir visiting Beirut for an Arab summit boycotted by most Arab leaders.

Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani then announced a $500 million investment in Lebanon's bonds to support its ailing economy.

Middle East analysts at the time said Qatar's move marked a bid to regain some of its soft power in the region dented by the counter-revolutionary frustration of the Arab Spring that Doha supported, and the Saudi-led blockade.

Trade between other countries, especially Turkey, which is one of Qatar's top customers for non-oil exports has also skyrocketed since the blockade.

"Qatar's investment to Turkey is over $20bn, the second highest value of investments by any country in Turkey," Qatar's Chamber of Commerce Vice Chairman Mohamed bin Twar said recently.

Turkey also jumped to the aid of Qatar in the immediate aftermath of the blockade by sending cargo planes full of milk, yogurt, and poultry to the blockaded country, with statistics showing a 90 percent increase of Turkish exports to Qatar in the four months of the blockade.

But Qatar has been winning off the political field too, remaining defiant in the sporting world and on the football pitch. 

Dubbed the “dark horses of the Asian Cup 2019”, Qatar delivered a humiliating blow to the UAE after winning the tournament in the UAE following a remarkable record-breaking run that saw the team concede just one goal.

Though the Annabis took the cup in the UAE, Emirati dignitaries were notable by their absence from the podium. 

The UAE had taken a number of attempts to end Qatar's run in the tournament - from block-buying 18,000 tickets to the semi-final, ensuring few if any Qatar fans could get a seat, to complaining bitterly about the eligibility of Qatari players.

Not a single senior UAE official was present to hand medals to the victorious Qatar football team in the closing ceremony of the Asian Cup 2019 and elaborate plans to feature some of the region's biggest stars including Hussein al-Jesmi were also scrapped at the last minute, according to reports.

In May, reports revealed the Qatari group that owns French champions Paris Saint-Germain is bidding to buy a controlling stake in English Championship club Leeds United.

The gas-rich Gulf state has, like Manchester City owners Abu Dhabi, projected its power through football and won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, which is another reason why it has no time to hit the brakes despite the tensions outside its borders.

In May, FIFA confirmed Qatar 2022 will see 32 countries competing for football's biggest prize, following months of speculation that FIFA was looking to increase the number of nations taking part and which would lead to more countries hosting the World Cup.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino and reportedly the UAE had been behind to push for the expansion of the games, with Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi hoping to share the World Cup with arch-rival Qatar.

A FIFA internal report concluded that the Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia could not co-host the World Cup unless they restored economic and travel ties with Qatar that were severed two years ago.

The regional diplomatic crisis left neutral Kuwait and Oman as the viable options, although both countries were ruled out due to time or logistical factors.

The blockade, which has been previously described in rights reports as unlawful and a violation of human rights, has undoubtedly shaken ties between the former brethren. However, it has done little to throw Qatar off its course to establishing itself on the international stage, through trade, politics, culture and sports.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino