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ANALYSIS: Qatar 'forging its own path' one year into Saudi blockade

Qatar's national news service was hacked on 23 May last year, signalling the start of the Gulf crisis. A year in, and Qatar is building new alliances
People stroll along Doha’s Corniche (MEE/Wojtek Arciszewski)

DOHA - As Salwa Road leads closer towards the Qatar-Saudi border, traffic thins out considerably, until not a single car can be seen in either direction. The last petrol station before the crossing is deserted.

A year ago, this stretch of road would have been choked with trucks, but today, there is little reason to drive here. For the last 12 months, Riyadh and its Gulf allies have imposed a land, sea and air blockade on neighbouring Qatar in a bid for regional dominance.

Trade between Doha and the Saudi-led group has ceased, and citizens remain barred from travelling between Qatar and the blockading countries.

The Qatar blockade is part of a much larger puzzle - a Saudi and UAE-led redesign of the geopolitical landscape in the region

- Noha Aboueldahab, Brookings Doha Centre

In the heart of Doha, the effects of the siege are less visible. Grocery shelves are stocked with food, construction continues apace on roads and stadiums, and shopping centres buzz with activity.

In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund deemed the economic effects of the blockade to be “transitory”, noting that while foreign financing and resident private sector deposits fell by $40bn, this was offset by cash injections from the central bank and Qatar's sovereign wealth fund.

The blockade has forced Qatar to find alternatives to long-standing policies, both in terms of geopolitics and the basic functioning of its economy, analysts note.

Doha had to quickly pivot from relying on overland shipments across the Saudi border to airlifting certain items, including meat and dairy, from countries such as Turkey, and further developing its own domestic industries.

In this way, the blockade has helped to reduce Doha’s dependence on its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours, said Abdullah al-Arian, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

“The GCC was always in a position where there was an attempt to try to forge a common approach to the region… [but] these states didn’t necessarily see eye to eye,” Arian told Middle East Eye.

“By making itself more self-sufficient, economically especially, this is allowing Qatar to finally forge its own path in a way that it was hindered from doing previously.”

The hack that started it all

The Gulf crisis began a year ago on 23 May, when hackers gained access to Qatar’s official media platform and posted false comments attributed to the country’s emir that were critical of US foreign policy.

Doha later denounced the alleged involvement of Abu Dhabi, citing “a clear violation and breach of international law and of the bilateral and collective agreements signed between the member states” of the GCC.

The situation swiftly deteriorated, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt issuing a synchronised series of announcements on the morning of 5 June to cut ties with Doha.

They vowed to continue the blockade until Qatar complied with a list of 13 demands, which included shutting down the Doha-based Al Jazeera network, scaling back ties with Iran and closing a Turkish military base. Qatar rejected the demands as an affront to its sovereignty.

The deserted road leading to the Qatar-Saudi border (Azi Najafi/Middle East Eye)
News of the blockade sent an immediate ripple of panic through Doha, with grocery shelves stripped bare and long queues forming at bank machines. Although stocks were replenished quickly and cash remained available, shortages of certain products and price fluctuations persisted.

But as the year went on, it became clear that “there was not the level of impact that was expected”, said Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.

“People saw more goods and items and diversification, more than even pre-blockade,” Zweiri told MEE.

“It seems that Qatar was able to respond quickly to these small matters of basic needs … so that was a success in their efforts to minimise the impacts of the crisis on the people.”

Ultimately, the blockading countries failed in their quest to isolate Qatar, Zweiri noted, as Doha quickly shored up alliances with other countries in Europe and Asia.

The blockade also fostered greater camaraderie between Qatari citizens and expats, as both rallied around a strengthened sense of national identity.

Human rights abuses

For some, however, the siege has had deep and continuing effects. Human Rights Watch detailed “serious human rights violations” as a consequence of the blockade, including the separation of families, interruption of medical care and stranding of migrant workers. 

“The blockade really affected me and my family on a personal level,” Abdulla, a Qatari entrepreneur who declined to provide his last name, told MEE.

“Being half Bahraini and half Qatari, like many others here, the blockade tore [my family] apart. My father, who still holds a Bahraini passport, was in Bahrain at the time and we weren’t sure when it would all calm down and we could have him visit us regularly like he used to.”

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Last December, six months into the blockade, Amnesty International found that the blockading countries had made “little genuine effort to alleviate the suffering of those affected, including many mixed families facing traumatic separations … [and] there is no sign of a solution in sight.”

One year on, “it has become clear that the Qatar blockade is only a part of a much larger puzzle, which is essentially a Saudi and UAE-led redesigning of the geopolitical landscape in the region”, said Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre.

“It has been interesting to see the narrative change; initially, the quartet was hell-bent on pushing the accusation that Qatar is a sponsor of terrorism. Now … it has become increasingly clear that the quartet is actually pursuing a region-wide, counter-revolutionary assault, particularly following the Arab Spring,” Aboueldahab told Middle East Eye, citing Qatar’s support for the wave of anti-government uprisings that swept the region seven years ago, viewed as a threat by Riyadh and its allies.

Shoppers explore the wares at Doha’s Souq Waqif (Wojtek Arciszewski/Middle East Eye)

Will the GCC reconcile?

In the meantime, with the end game still unclear, many in Doha have simply resigned themselves to the “new reality” of life under blockade, Arian said. 

Rehab al-Naimi, a Qatari citizen who works in the financial sector, told MEE that the biggest change she has seen over the past year has been a drop in morale.

“We're fortunate enough to live in a country with the capacity to preserve living standards … so the material impact of the blockade was never a huge concern,” Naimi said.

“What we are not able to control is the strain this blockade has put on intra-GCC family relations, where one or more family member is from a blockading country or is married to one who is.” 

As a result, she said, the blockade “now dictates how people in one GCC country feel about people from other GCC countries … Most of us are pessimistic about any reconciliation in the near future and expect the blockade to last for many years.” 

While many remain similarly sceptical of a looming resolution, the situation could develop rapidly, as it did in those early days, analysts note.

But regardless of what unfolds next, Aboueldahab said, one thing is clear: “The GCC as a social and political idea will most certainly never be the same again.”

- Additional reporting by Azi Najafi in Doha

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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