Contrary to what many expected, Qatar has managed to weather isolation imposed by its neighboring countries, thus bringing about a reorganization of regional politics

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:54:53

When on June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt cut all relations with Qatar, most expected a swift capitulation of the small country in favor of the larger clout constituted by such quartet. In fact, in conventional terms, the balance of power is firmly in favor of the quartet by all measures. Instead, a year later, Qatar has been able to avert surrender. Still much has changed for the small country both domestically, regionally and internationally.


Re-drawing of regional and international relations


Regionally, due to the crisis, Qatar has developed ever closer relations to Turkey and a sort of softening towards Iran. Already in the early days of the crisis, Qatar resorted to both to establish air bridges for food imports, and started transiting through Iran’s air space and territorial waters to avoid disruptions to its energy exports. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also expressed unconditional support for Qatar, asking and obtaining from its Parliament the right to deploy Turkish troops on Qatari soil, effectively preventing any hypothetical military escalation of the crisis. The decision highlighted the strong political bonds between Ankara and Doha, institutionalized in bilateral agreements for security and defence cooperation signed between 2014 and 2016.


Today Qataris perceive a debt of gratitude towards Turkey that will likely cement the relations even further. On the other hand, Doha’s policy of dialogue with Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical competitor and neighboring regional power, Iran, appeared entirely pragmatic: Tehran’s support has been vital for Doha in order to remain solvent to its energy partners and continue to receive essential energy revenues, but hasn’t led to much deeper political engagement. For instance, the recent announcement that Doha will not be an active part of any military action against Iran is in fact not that groundbreaking given that Qatar-based military bases might be somehow involved. Qatar has on the other hand become closer to the other two smaller countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Kuwait and Oman: while formally remaining neutral, both countries support Doha’s right to full sovereignty and independence from Saudi Arabia, something they cherish for themselves too. In fact, decision-makers in both Kuwait and Oman have looked with concern at the crisis, factoring in the chance that they too could be pressured in the future to fall in line with Saudi-Emirati politics. On one hand Kuwait has been by far the most proactive player in pushing a diplomatic solution for the crisis, while Oman has stepped up, making its ports and airports available to Doha to circumvent the quartet’s measures.


Internationally, Qatar has managed to rely on soft power tools of influence in order to win support, shielding the country from the political and economic isolation that would have forced Doha into capitulation. Traditionally, relations with the United States (US) were pursued as the ultimate guarantee for stability in Qatar. However, in the context of this crisis, it quickly became clear that the US under the administration of Donald Trump had become unreliable, and something different from the stability guarantor it had been in the past for the Arab Gulf region. One day after the GCC crisis erupted, US President Donald Trump sent out tweets that seemed to suggest that the White House would support Qatar’s opponents, in contrast with the the United States’ State and Defence Departments position of favoring de-escalation. A year later, President Trump himself seemed to shift his position, by openly calling for the resolution of the crisis without, however, suggesting a proactive mediation role for the US. Overall, despite this change of heart, it remains clear that the US cannot be relied upon to drive the crisis to a resolution. Consequently, Qatar looked beyond Washington by investing in closer ties with influential European states and Asian economic powerhouses. Because of Qatar’s relevance as an economic, financial, and energy partner, European and Asian countries have contributed to help construct Qatar’s political and economic resilience amid the gravest crisis ever confronted by the coastal emirate. The fact that European and Asian states have not shown any willingness to reassess or reduce their ties with Doha is per se very significant, given how these actors have strong relations with Qatar’s opponents too. Qatar was able to preserve and nurture its own relations skillfully – including by staying solvent to its energy commitments while bearing the resulting additional costs of re-routing export lines - and, in turn, escaping a fate of political and economic isolation.


In fact, the legacy of the crisis might be the re-drawing or re-calibration of Qatar’s web of alliances not only in the region but also at an international level, especially should the United States continue to position its own moves with the long-term goal of retrenching from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.


Questions of domestic stability


Thorough the first months of the crisis, Qatar’s opponents had pushed and supported alternative figures within Qatar’s Al Thani royal family as challengers to the throne of the young Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose father has been the chief architect of Qatar’s proactive and controversial regional policy, main target of the crisis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular had not ruled out the scenario that the crisis would have triggered domestic opposition to the young ruler and support for an alternative, more accommodating figure, more closely aligned with the policies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. However, despite the comprehensive media campaigns and public relations efforts promoted to that end, Qatar’s population largely remained loyal to Emir Tamim. Resistance to the ultimatum has triggered an “us against the world” narrative that has brought the communities together and behind the current ruler. A year after the crisis, idealised portraits of the Emir are almost ubiquitous in Doha and national pride remains strong.


As much as Qatar’s sense of national pride has been growing for a year, so has the hostility towards the quartet of its opponents, especially those members of the GCC. The vitriolic media campaign coming from all sides of the dispute, quickly disseminated and inflated on social media, and the rapid surge of a vertical - top down - nationalism, has put into question the depth of the “khaliji” identitarian bond. In addition, the expulsion of Qatari citizens and the introduction of restrictions on cross-border movements pose serious questions on the long-term impacts of the crisis on the GCC social fabric. Families have been torn apart, causing distress and amplifying hostility, as well as creating sense of social isolation in Qatar. On the other hand, isolation has also acted as a catalyst and a push for developing, where possible, self-sustainability. Indeed, the substantial level of economic integration attained by the GCC became an enabling context for the diplomatic offensive, magnifying the effects of the quartet countries sealing their borders to the transit of goods, capitals and citizens. Forced to develop economic resilience, and facing substantial challenges for every import/export operation, many in Qatar have striven to source whatever possible locally. The state, relying on a financial reserve of allegedly around USD 350 billion, stepped in comprehensively to assist, by subsiding commercial operations when necessary and infusing liquidity into financial institutions to avert a currency crisis or massive financial instability. While some expenses had to be cut from the state budget, and some sectors – such as tourism – could not be shielded from the impact, overall the reserves have provided a meaningful cushion and even infrastructural plans for the World Cup in 2022 have, slowly and to a certain extent, progressed.


What Way Forward?


When plans for a GCC Summit in Camp David to be held in the spring of 2018 were cancelled, it became clear that there was no true intention on behalf of the quartet to backtrack. The message from both Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been that the crisis should be solved at a regional level, thus effectively shutting down international powers from employing their leverage to pressure for a resolution – should there be any truly willingness to do so. The parties were not yet ready to talk about de-escalation nor crisis resolution, nor are they more so ready currently, on the anniversary of the decision taken in June 2017. While its regional profile has in fact been scaled back, and Doha has kept relations with groups in Libya, Palestine and Syria at a minimum, Qatar has not agreed to the counterparts’ demands – which included shutting down Al Jazeera, cutting relations with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and closing down Turkey’s military base in the country. On the other hand, the quartet is not incline to trust Doha - and its Turkish ally - with new agreements on their regional policy. Beyond that, there are valid speculations that the Qatar crisis is, in fact, meant to divert Qatar’s attention and resources inwards while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi push for major initiatives in regional geopolitics and that those haven’t materialised in full yet.


Given Qatar’s track record of placing itself on the regional chessboard on opposite fronts from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and its significant soft power influence on regional actors, Qatar can be an insidious opponent. In this sense trying to erode Qatar’s finances by diverting them towards coping with the crisis’ consequences, becomes strategic. All considered, the major and most long-lasting legacy of this crisis, with all the red lines it crossed, would seem to be precisely the damage done to mutual trust and, with it, to personal relations between the leaders of the GCC, a key feature in the history of the bloc. A bloc first established in the 1980s to join forces against common external threats, that, confronted with the challenge of being cracked from within, froze into inaction and risks becoming an institution without a purpose.