The Gulf states trained guns at Doha eighteen months ago, but Qatar is doing just fine.
DOHA — When the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a trade and travel ban on Qatar, they had perhaps envisaged the tiny gulf nation to go on its knees and plead for the blockade to be lifted.
They demanded Qatar stop propelling the Muslim Brotherhood - a religiously conservative political group - whose presence Saudi and its allies see as a threat to their monarchical rule, take the international broadcaster Al Jazeera off air for they accused it of fanning the Arab revolts and stop funding terrorists, charges Qatar denies.
Eighteen months later, Doha has not capitulated to any of their demands. Instead, it has proved to be far more resilient than they thought.
Behind Qatar’s resilience is a whopping $340 billion sovereign wealth fund, a part of which it cashed into when the sudden crisis was imposed upon the country. The pearl diving nation until the 1970s turned into the richest country in the world on per capita income basis because of its vast natural gas reserves, the third largest in the world. Exuding out of its wells, LNG is the country’s financial bulwark, ensuring Qatar can pursue with independent policies however ambidextrous they may be.
Powering Qatar’s resistance, as much as its material might, is a feeling that no longer will they kowtow to the whims of the larger neighbour. Saudi Arabia was pumping oil and earning billions much before Qatar began exporting gas and ever since it has tried to dominate the smaller cousin.
FIFA work carries on
In November last year, the International Monetary fund said that despite the crisis, Qatar’s economy has continued to grow.
While Qatar airways has admittedly suffered losses and the real estate market seen a dip, the losses are not enough for the tiny but very wealthy Gulf nation to relinquish its pride.
One visit to Doha reveals abundant evidence of how Qatar is unflinchingly carrying on. It has not halted work on any of the stadiums, hotels and metro stations it is building to host the next football world cup - four years from now - and feels emboldened enough to boast about its artistic vision.
“We told the world to expect amazing,” said General HE Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary of the Supreme Committee responsible for creating the $200 billion worth infrastructure as he unveiled the design of Lusail stadium mid-December. This stadium will look like a shimmering golden bowl and host 80,000 fans from across the world. The country had already flaunted the construction of seven other stadiums and the shape of the Qatar Foundation stadium as a diamond in the desert.
These, are hardly signs of a country reeling under pressure.
On the contrary, Qatar is beaming with confidence. The crises was short lived.
A focus on self reliance and new alliances
You need not go any further than the Lagoona mall opposite the Grand Hyatt in Doha to witness how quickly the country has adapted to the changes and retooled its economy.
Santoshi, from Nepal, has been employed at the Carrefour supermarket in the mall for over five years. “Unnoticeable” is how he described the impact and said that just the first few days after the blockade was imposed in June 2017 were challenging and that too mainly because people started buying items in bulk.
“Within days, other countries made up for the shortage,” he said, “And soon enough, stuff was rerouted through a new Qatari port.”
At first, nations friendly with Qatar, such as Turkey and Iran, boosted the supplies of the perishables and kept the shelves full. And within a few months, Qatar managed to reroute the imports through the newly operational $7.4 billion Hamad port.
It also used the ban to refocus on self reliance and gave urgent impetus to Qatar’s agricultural companies.
Baladna or our country, became an example. About 60 kilometres from Doha, over 10,000 Holsteins grazed in temperature controlled barns, producing 100,000 litres of fresh milk a day. It produced other dairy products and livestock which soon stocked up the shops.
Despite domestic production, the desert country is still dependent on imports. But the story of Baladna’s success and that Qatar could carry on buying what it needed from the rest of the world, instilled hope among the Qataris that they can come out of the crisis sans bowing down to the wishes of its Arab neighbours.
Qatar snubs Saudi Arabia, builds up defenses
In an indication that Qatar will hold back on appeasing the Saudis, it walked out of OPEC believed to be under the influence of Riyadh. Albeit officially Qatar said it did so to focus on gas production considering it is the smallest contributor to the oil cartel.
Qatar’s Emir also did not go to the Gulf Cooperation Council held in the Saudi capital in December. The local media reported that a junior minister was sent merely to mark Qatar’s presence and the Emir himself did not oblige because Qatar does not see Saudi Arabia to be serious about a rapprochement.
It may be right. The quartet has not shown any signs of burying the hatchet.
Experts of the region TRT World spoke to said that while the enmity is longstanding, it has gone markedly further with the blockade because of the obstinate and authoritarian nature of the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia and unless there is a change in the Saudi leadership, the impasse may not be resolved.
That change seems unlikely. Mohammed bin Salman has weathered much criticism since his ascension. The exacerbation of the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the strong arming of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the arrests of women rights activists and even the brutal killing of a dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, have not weakened his grip on power. His continuation is attributed to the staunch backing of his father, King Salman.
As tensions linger, Qatar has also made up its mind to beef up the country’s defences. It is spending billions of dollars on weapons systems - purchase of American F-15s, Rafale and Eurofighter typhoon combat jets - among them. It is also planning to open a new naval base by next year and double up its naval forces by 2025.
In an attempt to increase the number of armed personnel, Qatar has extended the national service program from three to twelve months and to enlist women for the first time. It may still not match up in numbers with its neighbours but Qatar realises its real defense comes from the presence of the Al-Udeid air base which is the largest US military facility in the region, just 30 kms off Doha. To pacify the Americans it has announced the expansion of the base and in back door lobbying in Washington, assuaged America’s other concerns.
No one believes the warring Gulf states will train guns at each other, but in the cold war playing out in the desert, Qatar has held out and is doing just fine.