It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
What a difference a year makes. In December 2016, pan-Arab solidarity trumped nationalism when Qatar cancelled the official ceremonies celebrating independence on its National Day after Aleppo fell to Syrian loyalists. Now, six months after the beginning of a blockade of Qatar imposed by its Arab neighbours, this season of National Days in the Gulf nations (Oman celebrated November 18, followed by the United Arab Emirates on December 2, Bahrain on December 16, then Qatar on December 18) appeared more riven by intra-Arab disputes than ever. In the cracks, the flowers of a new, stronger Qatari nationalism are sprouting.
National Days in the Gulf, once the preserve of simple frivolities, fireworks and Corniche parades, have morphed into key nation-building exercises for the region’s citizens. Even Saudi Arabia, which only formally recognised a National Day in 2005, has embraced ever-more elaborate public ceremonies. The 40th anniversaries of independence for Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2010-11 were lavish affairs compared to prior years.
Yet for Qatar, this year marked a National Day like no other.
In 2007, then-Emir His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani shifted the Qatari commemoration of the holiday from September 3 to celebrate the ascension of Sheikh Jassim bin Mohamed al-Thani. In official Qatari history, Sheikh Jassim earned diplomatic recognition for Doha in 1878.
The slogan for this year’s celebration was “Promises of Prosperity and Glory.” Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister HE Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani made it clear that it was a message aimed at Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the nations involved in the blockade. In the face of the quartet’s boycotts, Qatar’s expatriates and locals alike joined on the Corniche in Doha in a display of patriotism and defiance.
Before the blockade, Qatar’s cultural, tribal and political distinctiveness had been muddled by centuries of trade and interaction throughout the Gulf. As merchants and Bedouin journeyed from well to well in the centuries before oil, links to land were less important than links to tribal networks. This produced a foggy tribal map with unclear territories stretching across the Arabian Peninsula. Large tribes like the al-Shamsi stretch from Kuwait to Oman. The al-Ameri have branches from the United Arab Emirates to Yemen.
But the June blockade drew stark lines in the sand. Tribes and religious sects were divided by passport, sparking complaints from family members now cut off from one another. National identity now dictates freedom of movement as well as economic opportunity; Qataris used to being able to work, travel and live freely anywhere in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries suddenly find themselves expelled from three of their neighbours.
In this way, the blockading powers inadvertently reinforced Qatar’s political distinctiveness; their main complaint is, after all, that Qatar does not toe the line as set by its other GCC partners. This has given rise to a unique nationalism pinned on His Highness the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Before the boycott, his official portrait already hung in most buildings in Doha. After it began, a new depiction of him by Qatari artist Ahmed bin Majed Almaadheed went viral and now appears on banners, automobiles and T-shirts. Tamim nationalism is suddenly chic in Doha.
Across Qatar, industries and businesses began to adapt to the blockade, extolling their new nationalist credentials as they did so. Food security, imperilled by the closing of the Saudi land border, raced to the top of the agenda. Qatari capital, once stashed in Dubai, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, returned home. The boundary between good business and patriotic display blurred in other ways as well. Qatar Airways, the national carrier, produced a “no borders, only horizons” advertisement that obliquely criticised the blockade and garnered significant attention online. “The world is all of ours to explore, and it is a strange thing for us to be apart,” the ad said. The video earned 1.4mn views, several times the population of Qatar’s 300,000 citizens.
After once fighting alongside the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, Qatar brought in Turkish troops to reinforce its already-considerable US firewall against any would-be military invasion. Doha produced new trade deals with Turkey and Iran to ensure as little interruption as possible to the lifestyles of ordinary citizens.
It’s a stark shift from the dreams of yesteryear, when GCC states hoped to build a currency and defence union, and shorter passport lines privileged tourists from fellow GCC countries. Regardless of the siege’s outcome, Qatari identity has undergone a profound change in a short amount of time.
* This is an edited version of the article “A Renewed Sense of Nationalism Takes Root in Qatar” published by Texas-based Stratfor in its Worldview section.
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