How Qatar managed to turn the tables on Saudi Arabia

May 17, 2018 11:27
The Saudi blockade has led to Qataris standing in unity and rallying behind their monarch in an outpouring of patriotism. Photo:

In the summer of 2017, Qatar suddenly faced an all-out diplomatic boycott spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a few other Arab states such as Bahrain.

One year on, it appears the worst-ever diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf area is still on in full swing.

Worse still, it seems Saudi Arabia and the UAE are turning up the heat on Qatar. The two countries announced recently that they will build a great “canal” along the shared border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in an attempt to turn the latter completely into a "desert island".

Meanwhile, the two countries have also planned to set up a military zone as well as a nuclear waste dump site near Qatar in order to further intimidate the small neighbor.

I was in Qatar recently, and found that contrary to popular belief, the country has remained largely intact and untroubled even in face of the relentless offensives mounted by the Saudis.

In fact, I was actually pretty impressed by the kind of wisdom and resolve demonstrated by the people of Qatar in their efforts to overcome the crisis.

True, there had been a brief stampede as people scrambled to stock up on food and other daily necessities immediately after Saudi Arabia and the UAE mounted their diplomatic onslaught.

However, the fear among the Qataris was gone quickly and their confidence was restored as the Qatar government was reassured by Iran and Turkey that they would guarantee the supply of food and other resources to the country.

Thanks to the material support of Tehran and Ankara, daily life in Qatar quickly returned to normal.

Meanwhile, as some gulf countries such as Kuwait and Oman remained neutral throughout the diplomatic crisis, it provided Qatar with a key "transfer oasis" amid the blockade imposed by the Saudis.

Besides, as a global hub for banking and financial services as well as international conferences, Qatar is fully capable of withstanding whatever economic or diplomatic pressure is piled on it by Saudi Arabia.

Even though the main reason why Saudi Arabia dislikes Qatar so intensely is the latter’s close relations with Iran, it appears Doha has no intention whatsoever of starting to keep Tehran at arm’s length in order to please Riyadh.

Instead, Doha has seized the opportunity presented by the crisis to enhance and highlight its own strategic value in the eyes of the great western powers.

More importantly, apart from Iran and Turkey, the US also has a huge stake in Qatar, i.e. its key military bases and huge investments in the country, which explains why the US, despite being Saudi Arabia’s close ally, didn't openly take sides with Riyadh against Doha throughout the crisis.

In other words, due to its own strategic concerns, the US has every reason to make sure Qatar won’t crumble in face of the relentless onslaughts mounted by the Saudis.

And in return for Washington’s protection, Qatar has imported tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons from the US over the past year.

These arms purchase can be interpreted as both "protection money" paid to Washington and military deterrence against Saudi Arabia.

Although President Trump has appeared to be leaning towards the Saudis, his former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been more sympathetic towards the Qataris. Tillerson's successor, Mike Pompeo, who is mainly preoccupied with Iran, has called upon Riyadh to end its hostility against Doha in order to facilitate unity in the region.

Therefore, as long as Qatar is able to maintain its direct channel of dialogue with the US, there is basically nothing that can truly threaten its survival.

Besides, as far as Doha is concerned, there is actually an upside to the whole crisis: it has helped to unify the entire country and provided the Qatar government with a golden opportunity to promote patriotic education in the country.

Since the onset of the Saudi blockade, Qataris have been churning out posters of their ruling Emir and putting them up across the country in order to show support for their government amid "foreign aggression”.

Giant posters of the king, as well as souvenirs with the monarch's image on them, are now available everywhere in Qatar.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 3

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