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Fifth column

June 16, 2018

Qatar’s miracle


June 16, 2018

The Gulf state of Qatar has just completed its first year of an all-out land, sea and air blockade that was aimed at cowering down the tiny nation of fewer than 300,000 people.

Last year, in early June, the Saudi Arabia-led quartet which includes Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE abruptly cut off diplomatic ties and forced a siege against the country, accusing it of harbouring and supporting terrorism including Isis cadres – a charge denied by Qatar. Prior to this, the website of the official Qatar News Agency and other government media platforms were hacked and planted with fake news attributed to its top leadership. This acted as a convenient pretext to trigger the misadventure.

The US initially fanned the crisis, with President Trump supporting the embargo using tough rhetoric against Qatar and calling for the country to comply with the demands, which also included the closure of Middle East’s only credible news source, Al Jazeera. The US tilt emboldened the Saudis and provoked panic and fear that the quartet was gearing up to invade Qatar and overthrow its current ruler, Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Had it not been for the opportune backing of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his public support and assurance to commit troops on the ground, the war at one point looked just round the corner. The timely Turkish intervention calmed the situation as the US authorities also started to show support for de-escalation and rapprochement.

To survive the blockade was no easy job. It was aimed to impose guardianship on the tiny peninsular country, undermine its sovereignty and independence, and humiliate it beyond any redemption. Worse, Qatar was dependent on all its food and medicine on imports from its neighbourhood. Almost 80 percent of Qatar’s food requirements came from the Gulf neighbours and even the imports from beyond depended on the only land route through Saudi Arabia that was immediately closed down after the embargo.

To Emir Al-Thani’s credit, he showed terrific leadership qualities to manage the crisis prudently and moved swiftly to avert any consequences. He employed regional and international power balances, first to dissipate the immediate threat of aggression and later to substantially weaken the repercussions of the siege. After all, it is the current Emir who had transformed the small country from a non-descript Saudi appendage into a significant and influential regional player with a global reach of its soft power.

In the immediate aftermath of the blockade, there was nervousness among the people as it caused a food-security scare. This forced the people to rush to supermarkets and empty aisles of food. The emir managed to garner support from Iran and Turkey to immediately plug the gap, and stabilised the situation in less than 24 hours. Soon after, the country took far-reaching steps to ensure both its food and physical security by strengthening its security partnerships with several countries. It renewed its military agreement with the US, entered into a long-term and special defence and security partnership with Turkey, and is developing a close relationship with Russia which is supplying it an advanced air defence system, despite serious protestations from the Saudis.

Qatar has successfully countered the Saudi moves of isolating it, as it has deepened its strategic relationship with the US as well as reinvigorated its ties with the EU. Doha has also challenged the Saudi influence within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by forging close ties with Oman and Kuwait – the two member countries that refused to toe the Saudi line on the blockade.

In just 12 months, the country has not only successfully weathered the storm but also turned its biggest existential challenge into a great stream of opportunities, renewing hope and confidence among its citizenry. The blockade spurred an aggressive drive for self-sufficiency. The country has built farms and transformed its deserts into fertile land. From producing less than one percent of its food locally, Qatar is now able to satisfy nearly half of its dairy, fish and meat requirements from the local production. The government has launched an ambitious target to achieve 90 percent of its basic food production capacity locally by the next year. Given their progress so far, the target seems achievable.

To address the closure of air and sea routes imposed by the blockade, Qatar has opened new air routes and shipping lines and retooled its own port to cater to cargo demands. Since the siege, the country has received one million containers through the Hamad Sea Port; it will reach its full capacity of 7.5 million containers within a year.

The successful management of the 2022 football World Cup remains one of the biggest challenges for the country. Despite a serious embargo, Qatar has managed to continue the implementation of all the World Cup projects and many of them are expected to be completed ahead of schedule. After the blockade, Fifa, the international governing body of football, was asked to explore a different venue, but it has shown confidence at the ability of the country to pull through this turbulent phase as the infrastructure work continues at full pace.

The international confidence in Qatar managing the Middle East’s first World Football Cup can be gauged from the fact that the World Trade Organisation has placed the peninsular country among the top 20 countries in the service sector of the global competitiveness index. The currency continues to be strong despite various attempts to manipulate and weaken it in international markets. Fitch Ratings, one of the three big global credit rating agencies that had cut Doha’s ratings after the embargo, raised it last month saying the country has weathered the crisis successfully.

Hussain Ahmed, a Doha-based senior Indian journalist who has worked in Qatar for nearly two decades, described the situation on the first anniversary of the siege as, “a mix of defiance and supreme confidence among Qataris and residents... a stark contrast to the early days of the embargo when there was panic.” He believes the blockade has been a huge boon as the local population has managed to grow out of their foreign dependence for everything, from food to their other daily needs, and started to grow. “This will add to our resilience and will further dampen the intended results of the illegal siege.”

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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