The Qatar blockade by a Saud Arabia led coalition wishing to permanently ostracize Qatar is continuing in 2019. Has Doha gathered more momentum? Has the West tilted in favour of Qatar? Does regional instability still loom?
The Saudi Blockade in 2017
In June 2017, a Saudi-led Arab coalition imposed a historic land, air and maritime blockade on Qatar. The coalition, or the anti-Qatar quartet, as it was later known gained momentum when Trump tweeted his appreciation for the blockade. The coalition desired to strong-arm Doha into complying with their thirteen demands. The corner-stone of allegations was Doha’s alleged supporting of Islamic extremists in the Middle East, counting within the members of the coalition – Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Demands included shutting down media outlets allegedly funded by Qatar, including Al Jazeera, expelling Iranian military representatives from Qatar, shutting down the upcoming Turkish military base, ceasing support to regional Islamist groups, handing over of all information on opposition elements, financial compensation, treacherous support for the Houthis, and so on.
Qatar did not succumb. A year and a half into the conflict, both sides claim victory.
Clearly, the demands were designed to be too much for immediate acceptance by Qatar. The larger game was converting Qatar into a vassal state and handicapping her independent foreign policy. Saudi Arabia carried out a massive public relations effort for escalating diplomatic pressure on Qatar.
The Blockade: Eighteen Months Later
The blockade has so far been in favour of Qatar. In April 2018, Trump attacked Saudi Arabia regarding terror aiding and recognized Qatar’s progress in the matter. The quartet’s underestimation of Qatar’s public relations capabilities has led to boomeranging of Riyadh’s efforts to sway the West into a notion that Qatar had serious issues that required addressing. Qatar’s PR expenditure of an estimated $1.5 billion has won the hearts of the West. Nevertheless, the quartet countries such as UAE continued their anti-Qatar campaigns while Saudi upped the game post the crisis. Propagandas such as ad campaigns and counter-ads became commonplace on channels such as CNN.
The clash of the PR campaigns has led to the quartet enduring more losses and reputational setbacks than Qatar. Venerable efforts by Riyadh to condemn Qatari extremist support in Syria, Libya and likewise have been demoralized by partisan punditry and portrayal of such accusations as merely a part of the Saudi sponsored efforts by Doha.
It is crucial to analyze two political developments that coincided with the blockade. The first was that Qatar found less incentive in supporting rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham as Assad’s government gained momentum in the Syrian civil war. Consequently, visible involvement of Doha with Syrian extremist groups reduced. Turkey rushed in to fill Doha’s void. This political move, though not symbolic of a strategic alteration, gained Western credibility for Doha.
The other political development was the crowning of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his image as one spearheading against Qatar. MBS utilized the scenario for domestic power consolidation. Expressing loyalty to the crown prince meant being vociferous against Qatar. Labelling of MBS critics as Qatari agents and the need to be anti-Qatar to be pro-MBS played out in Doha’s favour globally.
Mohammed bin Salman’s projection as a modernist and reformist muddled with power consolidation through a domestic crackdown on corruption had mixed results. His assent to dominance quickly overshadowed other regional issues, profiting Qatar. MBS being the minister of defence attracted criticism and responsibility for the Yemen war and famine. Qatar was further “expelled” from the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen, enabling Doha to appear as the noble supporter of Muslim and Arab causes. Qatar’s shift from suspicious geopolitical manoeuvrings drew Western approval.
Riyadh warming up to Israel and the unprecedented rapport between MBS and Netanyahu was understood as a regional consensus to put down Iran. Qatar portrayed the rapprochement as a reactionary alliance. Riyadh’s aggression sufficed this argument.
Amidst the efforts by the quartet to portray Qatar, Iran and its proxies as the chief regional threats, the quartet itself is being considered a symbolic autocratic conspiracy against aspirational political modifications in the Arab world. Contrastingly, Doha is pro-political change, pro-modernization and even prior to the blockade has been one friendly to Arab powers striving for political changes. Noticeably, Qatar is the victor in terms of public opinion.
The quartet, however, claims victory owing to the redrawing of regional political and military structures; and the limitations faced by Doha due to economic pressures. They claim Qatar’s capability of being a spoiler in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt has declined and points to military gains of Libya’s Khalifa Haftar (post the blockade) as proof for Qatari paralysis.
Qatar reduced the regional influence over the country by exiting the OPEC and stated that Doha would look primarily at the development of extraction of natural gas rather than petroleum in the future. Qatar has further agitated the Saudis and Emiratis with criticism. Qatari Foreign Minister in December 2018 accused Saudi of destabilizing the region by policies of blockading Qatar, the Yemeni war and kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister. He also condemned UAE for destabilizing Somalia by supporting Somaliland; paying Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen; and for disrupting Libya. Doha has time and again been critical of the re-imposed US sanctions on large swathes of the Iranian economy. Doha’s covert and overt support to Iran has been a constant irritant in the Saudi-Qatar relationship.
Nevertheless, the blockade may end as unexpectedly as it commenced. The prolongation of the crisis would only prove costly for UAE and Saudi’s public relations and increase Qatar’s credibility in the eyes of the critics. Nineteen months into the blockade, Qatar has emerged stronger and more desirable. The state transformed the crisis into an opportunity. Qatar’s farsighted investments in research institutions, human resources and universities especially under Sheikha Mosa, consort of former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has proved fruitful in tilting global judgement in favour of Qatar.