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Two years on, Qatar has beaten the Saudi-led blockade Open in fullscreen

James Reinl

Two years on, Qatar has beaten the Saudi-led blockade

Instead of backing down, Doha forged stronger trade and political ties with other countries [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 June, 2019

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Analysis: On June 5, 2017, things looked bleak for Qatar as Riyadh and its allies imposed a blockade on Doha. Two years later, Qatar has proven itself immune to coercion
The ballsy television news network Al Jazeera still broadcasts round-the-clock. Turkey’s Tariq bin Ziyad military base remains open. And a few miles away, Iran’s flag still flies at its embassy in the Qatari capital, Doha. 
 
This is despite the fact that shuttering these three institutions was on a list of 13 demands made of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and other countries in mid-2017, as they imposed a political boycott and economic blockade on Doha.
 
On June 5, Qatar marked two years since that move by Saudi, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, to compel what they called an 'errant' neighbour from supporting terrorism — a charge that Qatar ridicules and denies.
Two years on, the boycott continues. But a recent spike in US-Iran tensions and growing calls for Arab unity have raised questions about whether the commitment to blockading Qatar is flagging.
 
"Qatar has maintained its sovereignty under extreme duress, but we cannot yet say it has beaten the blockade. Qatari citizens still cannot travel to other parts of the Gulf for business or to visit loved ones,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington-based expert on Gulf security.
 
"The Saudis and Emiratis are under pressure right now, so they’ve made gentle overtures to Doha. But their underlying desire to curtail Qatar’s independence remains the same, and they could easily turn the heat back up on this policy if the situation changes". 
 
In the early hours of 5 June, 2017, the Saudi-led Quartet severed diplomatic ties with Doha. Saudi Arabia shut its land border with Qatar, and all four members imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar.
 
They claimed Qatar was too cosy with Iran, supported terrorists in Syria and other hotspots, and meddled in their domestic affairs. A list of demands urged Qatar to mend its ways, including by shuttering Al Jazeera and other news outlets, including The New Arab.
Instead of backing down, Doha forged stronger trade and political ties with other countries
Qatar has denied that it supports terrorism and has accused the Saudis, Emiratis and others of trying to bully it into submission, give up its sovereignty and make the peninsula a vassal state that takes orders from Riyadh.
 
Instead of backing down, Doha forged stronger trade and political ties with other countries, particularly Turkey and Iran. To boost its economy, it left the Saudi-dominated club of oil-exporters, OPEC, in January and is ramping up production of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Although a reported military move the Quartet was plotting against Qatar was averted, Doha boosted defence ties with Turkey and the West. Doha has announced purchases of 36 American F-15s, 12 French Rafale fighters and 24 Eurofighter Typhoon aircrafts.

Read more: Qatar to pull out of Saudi-dominated cartel OPEC
 
"Qatar has beaten the blockade on many different levels," Jonathan Cristol, an analyst of US foreign policy in the Middle East and author of The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11, told The New Arab.
 
"First, after an initial supply shock, Qatar was able to not only stock its shelves, but create entirely new industries and supply chains. Second, Qatar has not given in to any of Riyadh's maximalist demands and, in fact, many of those demands have backfired". 

A man prints a poster of Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at a printing house in Doha, Qatar on 12 June 2017, in reaction to blockade applied to Qatar

Qatar remains isolated, but the political landscape has changed in recent months.
 
Riyadh continues to face blowback over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and critic who was murdered at a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey last year, which prompted a global outcry and calls for the prosecution of top Saudi officials.
 
Also, the US has re-imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, and it wants its Gulf Arab allies to show a united front in a bid to pressure Tehran into scaling back its political and military ambitions across the Middle East.
 
Last month’s attacks on Saudi oil tankers and other vessels bunkering off the UAE coast, and a drone raid on oil facilities in the kingdom’s interior, have been linked to Iran and have underscored how the energy-rich region’s economy is vulnerable to attacks.
Despite some calls to park its B52s elsewhere, the Pentagon has stuck with Qatar.
Against this backdrop, Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani visited Mecca on 30 May to discuss Iran's regional ambitions with Arab leaders — the highest-level meet between Qatari, Saudi and Emirati officials since the boycott began.
 
Among the rare gestures at the Mecca gathering was Sheikh Abdullah shaking hands with his host, King Salman, after the pair were encouraged by the Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
 
There was also a brief handshake between the Qatari prime minister and the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, though it was not clear if the two men exchanged any words.
 
MbS once suggested the blockade could drag out for decades. Saudi officials have dialled back the anti-Qatar rhetoric. Still, speaking at the Mecca confab, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said solving the Gulf crisis would involve Doha returning to the “right path”.

Read more: Saudi Arabia still intransigent on Gulf crisis despite Qatar PM attending Mecca summit

Riyadh was “looking for a solution for the causes of the problems”, al-Assaf added.

At the end of the summit, however, Qatar's foreign minister said Doha rejected the outcome of the Mecca talks as it had not been properly consulted.
 
For Cristol, Qatar was dealt a weaker hand, but held out against the quartet by playing its cards well in Washington.
 
While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi won favour with Donald Trump's administration, particularly with the US president’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Doha also built up its public relations machinery in the US.
 
Qatar also had a trump card: it hosts the largest US military facility in the Middle East at Al-Udeid air base, from which US-led coalition aircraft stage sorties against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
 
Despite some calls to park its B52s elsewhere, the Pentagon has stuck with Qatar.
 
“While it’s clear that Qatar has beaten the blockade, the row is ongoing,” said Cristol.
 
“Because Riyadh enjoys strong support in the White House, Qatar must continue both its public diplomacy and outreach, and also its deep relationship with the US defense establishment. The game is still being played and the stakes could not be higher."

James Reinl is a journalist, editor and current affairs analyst. He has reported from more than 30 countries and won awards for covering wars in Sri Lanka, Congo and Somalia, Haiti's earthquake and human rights abuses in Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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