17 July 2019
With supplies coming in from allies like Turkey and Iran, food stores and supermarkets in Doha have reportedly returned to normal after a brief period of panic buying. Photo: Al Jazeera
With supplies coming in from allies like Turkey and Iran, food stores and supermarkets in Doha have reportedly returned to normal after a brief period of panic buying. Photo: Al Jazeera

Can Qatar turn the tables on Saudi Arabia?

As the all-out diplomatic onslaught by Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar is under way, many doubt how much longer the tiny country with a population of three million can survive, given that Saudi Arabia is the hegemon in the Arab world.

However, contrary to popular belief, the strength of Riyadh and that of Doha are actually not as asymmetrical as many people think, nor is the current standoff between the two countries entirely a “David against Goliath” situation. Qatar still stands a chance to turn the tables on Saudi Arabia.

It is because even though Saudi Arabia is a lot larger in size and much more populous than Qatar, the two countries are in fact on par with each other in terms of economic strength and competitiveness.

Despite its small size, Qatar has vast oil and natural gas reserves comparable to those of Saudi Arabia, not to mention that Qatar has a higher GDP per capita than Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to the airline industry, both countries have their own world-class airline companies, with Saudia and the Qatar Airways being major rivals for market share in the region.

On the other hand, Doha, like Dubai, Bahrain and Jeddah, is also a global hub for financial services and international conferences.

In fact, one of the reasons the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is taking sides with the Saudis against Qatar is that Doha has become such a formidable competitor to Dubai in recent years that the UAE badly wants to undermine Qatar through this diplomatic blockade.

Apart from its economic strength, another reason Qatar has remained largely intact and untroubled in the face of the relentless offensive by the Saudis is that it has the full support of two powerful allies — Iran and Turkey.

In fact, almost immediately after the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis, Iran quickly rallied behind Qatar and became its major source of supplies. Since the onset of the crisis, hundreds of thousands of tons of strategic supplies have been shipped to Qatar from Iran by sea and by air on a daily basis.

Therefore, as long as Tehran continues to support Doha in the days ahead, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to succeed in bringing Qatar to its knees. All it can achieve is perhaps making it more costly for Qatar to sustain itself economically.

And then there is also Turkey. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has further consolidated his power and become increasingly pro-Moscow and anti-Washington after an abortive coup last year, he is determined to use Qatar as a lever against the US in the region.

Already having plans to establish a military base in Qatar to offset US influence even before the crisis began, Ankara has promised to expedite troop deployment to Qatar to protect it after the outbreak of the diplomatic blockade. With Turkey’s military protection, the chances of a Saudi invasion are almost zero.

In fact, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is split over Riyadh’s onslaught against Doha, with half of its member states against the action and declaring themselves neutral, such as Kuwait and Oman, both of which have been working aggressively trying to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

So far Qatar, has remained as defiant as ever against the Saudis and refuse to back down. However, its foreign ministry has also stressed that the country has “no intention to launch counter-sanctions”.

It was indeed both a message of goodwill and a subtle warning to the Saudis: Qatar has the capability to strike back and inflict severe damage on Saudi Arabia, only that it has decided not to do so for now, unless Riyadh continues to escalate its aggression.

As far as the US is concerned, even though President Donald Trump seems to be on the Saudis’ side for now, he may just flip-flop overnight given his unpredictability. In the meantime, State Secretary Rex Tillerson has issued a statement calling on both sides to exercise restraint.

It is believed that Tillerson is leaning toward Qatar because even though he has little experience in diplomacy, he knows what is at stake here: he used to be the chief executive of ExxonMobil, which has huge business interests in Qatar.

As such, if Saudi Arabia cannot pull off a swift victory, thereby allowing Qatar to buy time and organize counter measures, Riyadh might in the end sustain as much losses as Doha in this crisis.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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