‘What Doesn’t Kill Qatar Makes it Stronger’
Doha coping well with blockade by states opposed to Iran, experts say
Two years after a crisis began between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other countries farther afield, including Egypt, Doha appears to be in a good place, expanding diplomatic and trade ties with other nations without having accepted any of the 13 demands made on it by its antagonists.
The rift within the Sunni Muslim world erupted in June 2017 when countries severed relations with Doha, citing its alleged support for terrorism and its close relationship with Iran. They demanded that Qatar shut down its Al Jazeera news network and sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood as a condition for restoring normal relations. Other demands included political and economic restrictions that would prevent Doha from having any kind of diplomatic representation or economic exchange with Iran.
However, Qatar refused to bow to the pressure. It accuses its Gulf and Arab neighbors of enforcing a “siege” by means of severe restrictions on land, sea and in the air.
Mohammed al-Musafer, a Qatari political science instructor at Qatar University, told The Media Line that during the last two years, Doha had achieved much, and its foreign investments had increased.
“Qatar managed to strengthen its domestic front and unite the national powers within the country itself more than ever,” Musafer said, adding that the state of siege had failed to isolate the emirate.
“Qatar is being and becoming self-reliant − at least for all of the goods that it used to import from the ‘siege states,’” he said.
He explained that Qatar had expanded its circle of relationships in the Arab region, as well as internationally.
“It strengthened its relations with the African group and the European Union,” he told The Media Line.
Moreover, Musafer said that American-Qatari relations were excellent, where the two parties had signed strategic agreements in sectors including education, health and defense. In addition, he said that some of the countries that had joined the “siege” on Qatar had reversed their policies and contacted Doha with a view to restoring normal relations.
“Some of their requests have been approved and some are under study,” he said.
Musafer said one reason the blockade had failed was the dispute that arose regarding an “Arab NATO,” provisionally called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a US-Saudi proposal meant to counter Shi’ite Iran’s adventurism.
“Egypt refused to have the headquarters based in Saudi Arabia, where it would have to station its military contribution − especially since the Saudi kingdom has never been through real wars,” he elaborated. “The Arab NATO has failed; it’s only an organization on paper.”
Last year, the US administration started exploring the idea of creating the new security body, to be composed of Middle Eastern Sunni countries. Its member-states would seek deeper cooperation in missile defense, military training and counter-terrorism while strengthening broader political and economic ties.
Last month, in preparation for the launch of MESA, Saudi Arabia oddly made public an Arab-American meeting that included Qatar, which had been held in the kingdom on April 8 with high-level participation from US, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Jordan.
“The Arab NATO members have different interests and issues with one another,” Ibrahim Haj Ibrahim, a political science instructor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, told The Media Line. Ibrahim clarified that the Arab NATO countries might have agreed on a mutual enemy, but they remain divided on other issues, which will not help them in forming a joint security force.
When asked about the blockade, he stressed that Doha had not bowed to the demands placed on it, but had managed to adapt.
“It was affected during the first week of the siege due to the Saudi blockade on the Qatar market,” he said.
Ibrahim also emphasized the importance of Turkey’s support for Qatar.
“Ankara has opened its markets to Qatar and sent army troops there,” he said.
The first Turkish troops arrived in Qatar last year and established Ankara’s first military presence in the Gulf, to great resentment by neighboring countries. There are now an estimated 3,000 Turkish military personnel in Qatar, and their number may reach 5,000, according to the agreement between the two states.
Nizar al-Makan, a Tunisian writer and expert on international relations, clarified to The Media Line that Qatar had managed from the 1990s through the first decade of current century to build an extensive network of relationships within almost all of the Arab states.
“Doha has been always supportive of the Islamic opposition in most Arab countries,” he said.
Makan affirmed that the Qatari government had used this network to promote its policies in many countries and with many governments.
“In addition, this helped Doha to build a variety of relations with additional states,” he said.
Moreover, he explained that the emirate had succeeded in building up its media networks, including Al Jazeera, which dominated the public discourse in the Middle East.
“It [Qatar] intended to expand its foreign ties, as well as strengthen all of its other relationships, because Doha knows it may be abandoned at any time,” he said. “When the boycott was imposed on Qatar, it moved quickly to strengthen its relations with Turkey, which helped economically.”
Doha’s strategy after the crisis began was to build up its relations with countries that had Islamic rulers.
“This helped it face the boycott successfully,” Makan explained.
Morever, Mohammed Sulami, a Saudi political analyst and head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies in the kingdom, told The Media Line that the dispute between Qatar and other Gulf states had existed for years.
“None of the countries is going to restore relations unless Qatar responds to the requirements,” he said.
He believes Doha has been hurt by the boycott but that the Qatari media are trying to cover this up and show the opposite.
“The Western media affirms that Doha is affected, which is the reality,” he said.
Sulami added that Doha airport was not as busy as it had been before the blockade. In addition, he pointed to the ostracism that Doha had been suffering under the boycott.