A Tale of Resilience: How Qatar defeated the Blockade and Flourished.
The arrival of 'Arab NATO', indigenous Production of food items and Diplomatic campaigns across Washington and East Africa with mediation efforts of Late Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
A Tale of Resilience: How Qatar defeated the Blockade and Flourished.
‘His Highness was a distinguished statesman, an outstanding humanitarian,
a bridge-builder and a messenger of peace’
UN Secretary-General António Guterres tribute to late Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah
On May 20, 2017, when United States Secretary of State at that time, Rex Tillerson, received the sitting chart for lunch arranged for the leaders of Gulf countries during the Riyadh summit 2017, he could see Qatar’s foreign minister sitting with him but when he arrived for lunch, the Qatari minister had been taken to a table near the kitchen. He was with newly elected President Donald Trump on his first official visit to Saudia Arabia. Along with some other instances like this, he smelled that something wrong is happening with Qatar. He later told a congressional committee. (Source: Blood & Oil)
Two weeks after this visit, Saudia Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain suspended diplomatic ties with Qatar on the accusations of terrorism support. They also banned the use of their airspace & sea routes while the Kingdom was the only land route for Qatar. With the news coming out about significant progress in negotiations between Qatar and Saudia Arabia along with other GCC members in the mediation of Kuwait, It’s vital to discuss how a tiny Middle Eastern country, totally dependant for trade on either Saudia Arabia’s land route or neighbours sea routes & airspace, just didn’t defeat the Blockade but also flourished during these three years of the diplomatic crisis. This tale of self-sufficiency and resilience is a shining example for all the under pressure states and leaders out there.
For the record, It wasn’t the first time Qatar went into such a diplomatic crisis. The same thing happened in 2014 with accusations of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, strong Islamist organizations & political movement behind the Arab spring, threatening Arab monarchies. So at the time of the 2017 blockade, officials had some food storages piled up.
Tiny Peninsula - The richest country:
Qatar, a tiny peninsula of around 11,000 km2 on the east of Saudia Arabia bordering the Persian Gulf was a very poor state mainly surviving under the security umbrella of Saudia Arabia before a non-violent coup of 1995 when Hamad bin Khalifa overthrew his father Khalifa bin Hamad. Hamad, having studied at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, never agreed to his father’s approach to not shape Qatar’s own path in Global affairs. He developed the gas fields at a time LNG wasn’t much of a deal. Now Qatar is the largest producer & exporter of LNG in the world. With a little population of 2.7 million, the majority of which is labour or people who came for a job from other countries makes Qatar the richest country in the World on a per capita basis. It gave the ruling House of Al Thani, a lot of money to spend to shape its own foreign policy. He brought Western journalism to the Middle East with the establishment of Aljazeera news Agency, enormously recruiting international journalists from BBC and other top rated companies. They had an investigation team led by former US marine, Clayton Swisher. This unbiased coverage of sensitive Gulf matters, while the Kingdom has spent billions to press them was enough to piss these monarchies. But Hamad didn’t stop there, he built ties with Gulf leaders existing on the other end of the spectrum, Iranian Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and groups like Muslim Brotherhood, which Kingdom see as a main threat to stasis necessary for these regimes in the Middle East.
Food shortages and ‘Arab NATO’:
The first & foremost important trouble was of food shortage. Qatar was dependent on imports for 90% of its food requirements, even for dairy products. Panic buying in the early days of the embargo cleared the shelves in malls across the country. Sanctions were mainly imposed on Qatar for having closer ties with Turkey and Iran and guess who came to help Doha in such trying times. Iran immediately sent four cargo planes of food with the surety of continuation and so did Turkey. Ankara and Tehran both made sure to replenish the supplies of meat, water, sugar, and vegetables. Turkey, Qatar & Iran finally signed a transport agreement in Nov 2017 to let Doha import and export goods with Turkey through Iran. This build-up of ties between these three countries is often referred to as ‘Arab NATO’ and the whole situation as the ‘Cold War.’
Qatar also turned to its domestic farming and took immediate steps to grow indigenous production of vital food items. The government flew thousands of cows from America and Europe and set up its first dairy farm. While Vegetables came from Bangladesh and Fruits from Iran, companies also collaborated with local farmers for the local production of vegetables and fruits.
Together We Can! :
Images of current Emir of Kuwait, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, can be seen on many buildings in Doha. The whole nation came out united behind their leader to beat the blockade and this played a pivotal role in this cold war.
“Every citizen, from the first day of the economic blockade, realised that they have a role to play,” Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kuwari state minister of Qatar told Gulf Times once.
Whether it was indegneous production of fruits and vegetables internally or diplomatic campaigns in Washington and East Africa Internationally, this sense of resilience prevailed.
Economy, Infrastructure, and Banking sector:
Qatar is the first Arab country to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup, the biggest sports event after the Olympics and it does mean a lot both in terms of economy and foreign prestige of Qatar on the global stage.
Initially, expectations of Investment in 2011 was 50 billion $ which was similar to a drop in ocean compared to other ongoing infrastructure projects of 250 billion $. A little share of this is going to be spent on building eight stadiums from scratch while a major share is going to be used to host millions of fans coming from across the globe. Only Hamad International airport is estimated to handle some 50 million visitors. When Arabian Airlines Etihad, Emirates, and Fly Dubai suspended their operations amid sanctions, it halted the transfer of resources and personnel but not for long. Three of these state-of-the-art stadiums with advanced open-air cooling technology stadiums are already completed while three more Al Thumama, Al Rayyan, and Al Bayt are in the final stage.
Non-resident deposit percentage to total deposits dropped from 25% to 17% amidst sanctions. Deposits from blocking gulf countries were withdrawn and clients from non-blocking countries asking for higher interest rates made the banking sector suffer. Moody’s lowered the investment rating from stable to negative.
The government deviated 50 billion from its 340 billion $ sovereign wealth fund to support the banking sector and exchange prices. Initial 10 billion were moved just one month after the boycott to overcome the effects of foreign withdrawals with more than 40 billion $ in two months. In a year of sanctions, 9 billion $ of non-resident funds returned and with govt efforts having positive effects, the Qatari economy and banking sector came out even better than before the blockade.
The expansion project of Qatar’s main Hamad Port located south of Doha completed six months ahead of its time and also played an important role in fighting the blockade. Qatar, which was previously reliant on Dubai’s Jebel Ali port and Saudai’s land route, due to this biggest port in the Gulf region, shaped 10 direct lines to countries ranging from Oman and Turkey to India and China in record time.
In June 2020, the Fitch rating agency maintained the outlook of the Qatari economy as ‘AA stable’ meaning lower budget deficits, no need for a tax rise, and a positive impact on foreign investors.
It may sound strange to you but Qatar is strategically more important to the United States than Saudia Arabia. The kingdom may be the biggest US ally in the Middle East but Qatar hosts the biggest US base in Gulf ‘Al Udeid’ Air Base and As sayliyah army base accommodating more than 13,000 American troops. These bases play a vital role in the US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that while the US is pulling its troops from Gulf countries like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and even Afghanistan but not altering anything in Qatar, states its importance clearly.
The US administration with Trump himself, at first appeared to welcome the boycott as Qatar never spent billions of dollars in the US think tanks & lobbying for better ties with Washington, unlike UAE and Riyadh. But Qatari - US strategic dialogue sessions in 2018 played an important role in changing Washington's position on the Blockade.
Qatar’s little human resource limits it to build up weapons like its bigger neighbours but not stop it from building alliances with regional and global players. Khaild bin Waleed military base of Turkey, completed in 2019, hosts 5000 turkish troops and serves for a regional balance of power. Both countries also signed a deal in March 2019 of 100 Altay turkish tanks. Qatar wisely avoided military ties with Tehran amid negative signals to Washington.
Qatar’s sovereign fund is a vital investor in key European countries like Germany, France, Italy & Britain. It prevented these countries from going ‘all boycott’ with Qatar so they kept on importing LNG from Qatar.
Some sub-saharan countries in Africa, like Chad and Senegal, didn’t remain cut off for long. Chad restored ties in February 2018 while Senegal also reinstated its ambassador. Only few African countries like Mauritania, Comoros and the Maldives continued supporting the Quartet blocking countries.
Kuwait & Oman, two other key GCC players having neutral foreign policies, traditionally, remained reluctant to implement the Blockade. Both countries gain much benefits from the Gulf Cooperation Council, they couldn’t just be a part of the problem and let it fall, so Kuwait turned into mediator mode. Late Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, former emir of Kuwait, was known as ‘Dean of Arab Diplomacy’ and voice of wisdom across the Globe for a reason. Throughout his 57 year long career as foreign minister, prime minister and Emir of Kuwait, he mediated conflicts between Turkey & Bulgaria, Pakistan & Bangladesh, Palestinian Authority and Jordan, Gulf States and Iran and last but not the least, the 2014 GCC Crisis. Although the mess was greater than ever this time, the blocking Gulf states crossed some lines they never had previously but Kuwait kept on mediating and it seems those efforts are bearing fruit now. The quote in the start was my tribute to his efforts for peace in the Gulf for being the biggest donor for Syrian children, wherever and whenever he was needed, he delivered.