GCC crisis explained: Why is Qatar under blockade by Saudi Arabia and its allies?
Today marks the third anniversary of the Qatar diplomatic crisis, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke off all diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of "supporting terrorism" and conspiring with Iran, charges denied by Doha.
Qatar’s Gulf neighbours closed off their land borders, airspace, and territorial waters to the country and presented it with a list of thirteen demands.
These demands included "stopping all funding for terrorism", a catch-all term used by the quartet against any dissident groups including moderate Islamists; downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran and Turkey; and closing down Al-Jazeera, The New Arab, and other Qatar-based news outlets.
Qatar immediately rejected the demands, saying that they were effectively a demand to surrender Qatari sovereignty.
The countries imposing the blockade consider the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohamed Morsi won presidential elections in Egypt in 2012, a terrorist organisation.
They had supported the 2013 Egyptian military coup which had overthrown Morsi and brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. By contrast Qatar had opposed the coup and Egypt's ensuing return to authoritarian rule.
This was one of the blockading countries’ justifications for accusing Qatar of support for “terrorism” without distinction between moderate and militant Islamism. Qatar strongly denies supporting jihadist groups such as IS and the Al-Nusra Front, which was one of the accusations levelled against it by the blockading countries.
The blockading countries also demanded that Qatar downgrade ties with Iran, but they all had some form of relationship with Iran themselves. The UAE for example, has full diplomatic relations with Iran and strong trade and economic links. While Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cut ties with Iran in 2016, they still engage in talks with Tehran to diffuse regional tensions.
Most of the accusations against Qatar were based on planted reports broadcast by the Qatari News Agency (QNA) after it was targeted by a hacking attack on May 24 2017.
Fabricated statements attributed to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, were used to justify Saudi and Emirati claims that Qatar supported terrorism and had a secret relationship with Iran.
A July 2017 report in the Washington Post said US officials believe UAE-linked hackers were behind the attack. The blockade therefore, was based on falsified premises.
Many independent observers believe the blockade's purpose is to punish Qatar's independent foreign policy that diverges from that of the Saudi-led bloc on major regional issues, such as the Palestinian issue, democratisation, political Islam, and cooperation with Sunni powerhouse Turkey.
The impact of the land, sea, and air blockade was felt in the first few days of the crisis.
Most of Qatar’s food imports had come from its neighbours and the country’s supermarkets suffered food shortages in the first couple of days. However, things quickly returned to normal after Turkey and Iran made up for the food shortfall caused by the blockade.
Qatar has since invested billions of dollars to shore up its food security, with enough stockpiles to cover the needs of its citizens and expat population.
Qataris have deep relations with citizens of other Gulf countries, meaning that mixed-nationality couples, students, and kin were separated from their loved ones due to the blockade.
Many foreign workers were also stranded by the blockade. In 2017 100,000 Egyptian citizens in Qatar had no means of returning to their country initially because of Egypt’s suspension of travel to and from Qatar. But they soon were able to return to Egypt via Oman, which did not break relations with Qatar.
Before the blockade, flights into and out of Qatar would usually pass over Saudi and Emirati airspace. Now, they have to be diverted to a circular route passing over Iranian territory and the Gulf, making flight times longer. But three years on, citizens and residents of Qatar are now used to the situation.
The blockade has been largely ineffectual, failing to affect Qatar’s economy, achieve any of the demands originally presented to Qatar or change Qatari foreign policy. Qatar maintains normal relations with most countries across the world and cannot be said to have been isolated.
However, three years after the blockade was first imposed, there is little sign today that it will be lifted. Efforts by Kuwait to mediate between Qatar and its neighbours failed to bring about a result. Qatar has taken part in meetings with its Gulf neighbours, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh in December 2019 but this did not lead to a thaw in relations as was hoped.
Qatar has, throughout the three years of the blockade, expressed a willingness to reach a settlement with its neighbours. However, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain have insisted on maintaining the blockade, hoping that a shift in the global and regional balance of power will force Qatar to meet their demands.