Qatar has been under a siege of sorts for the past month, but the Gulf nation is, so far, feeling little pain, The New York Times reported from Doha yesterday.
When four Arab nations blockaded Qatar’s airspace and shipping channels last month in a bid to force it to change its foreign policy and shutter its influential TV station, Al Jazeera, there was an initial burst of panic as some supermarket shelves emptied. But that quickly subsided, and since then the nation has deployed its formidable treasury to keep its people in comfort position, the daily said.
The reputable US newspaper has summed up its observations as follows: Qatar depends on Saudi Arabia for its only land border, which is now closed. Camels and migrant workers caught on the wrong side of the frontier when the crisis erupted have been deported.
Qatar Airways, whose flights have been forced to leave the region through Iranian airspace, is running up to eight extra cargo flights every day to bring fresh supplies of fruit, meat and vegetables to Doha, the capital. Executives have ordered new cargo planes, and at the company’s vast, air-conditioned cargo facility at the airport in Doha on Sunday, employees said they anticipated little difficulty in handling the increased freight.
A $7bn port, which started operations in December, is expected to pick up the rest of the slack with shipments from new suppliers in Iran, India and elsewhere.
“We can cover the financial aspect without even tapping into our investments,” said Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed al-Thani, a senior communications official in the government. “It’s not a problem.”
For countries leading the blockade - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain - it illuminates the challenge of laying economic siege to the world’s richest country.
On June 22, the four countries issued a list of 13 demands against Qatar, including cutting its alleged ties to terrorist organisations, shutting down Al Jazeera and closing a small Turkish military base. Qatar said the ultimatums amounted to a demand that it surrender its sovereignty.
The original deadline for meeting those demands was midnight on Sunday. But Qatar indicated that it did not intend to give an inch. “We are prepared to face whatever consequences,” HE the Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said in Rome on Saturday.
The four countries agreed to a request by Kuwait, which has been acting as a mediator in the dispute, to extend by 48 hours the deadline for Doha to comply, according to a joint statement published by the Saudi state news agency SPA.
Experts warn that the crisis could destabilise the broader region if it persists for months, or longer, as many fear.
The feud over Qatar has already extended beyond the Gulf, sucking in Turkey, which is backing Doha, and Russia, which is trying to steer a middle course in the dispute. President Vladimir Putin of Russia said on Saturday that he had spoken with the leaders of Qatar and Bahrain in a bid to stimulate dialogue.
Normally, the United States might be counted on to help resolve the crisis, given that it considers itself a close ally of all the sparring countries. Qatar is home to a huge American air base with 10,000 American service personnel and warplanes that carry out daily attacks on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
But American policy on the dispute has had an inconstant quality of late, with the State Department offering sharp criticism of the Saudi and Emirati demands - which it called the product of an old grudge — while President Trump has sided with the countries leading the blockade.
Some American officials say Trump’s policy is being driven by two advisers, Stephen K Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who are firmly in the Saudi camp.
Qatar has been at odds with its neighbours for years over its independent foreign policy and its sponsorship of Al Jazeera, hugely popular across the Arabic-speaking world. The last spat, in 2014, led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha in protest for seven months.
But this time, citizens on both sides have become mired in the fight, and it feels more bitter and personal.
Every night, people flock to a giant billboard in a Doha suburb to sign their names on a sketched image of His Highness the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. After going viral in the early days of the blockade, the image, drawn by a local artist, has become an icon of Qatari resistance, adorning skyscrapers, car windows and cellphones across the capital.
On Friday night, men in white robes and black-clad women waited in line to be carried, one by one, on a cherry-picker so they could find a space to sign atop the 120sq ft billboard.
Among them was Umm Hassan, a government employee, 40, on her third visit. “The people have become like one heart,” she said.
But the crisis has also been a source of great sadness, she said. Her family has been shattered — a relative just died in Bahrain, and nobody could attend the funeral. Then there is her cousin, married to an Emirati, who recently had to send her one-year-old daughter to the United Arab Emirates to live with her husband. Under the law in most Middle Eastern countries, a child inherits the nationality of the father, and after the siege started, the United Arab Emirates insisted that all of its citizens leave Qatar.
“The cost of this crisis is human,” a distraught Hassan said. “It’s between governments, but it’s about people.”
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