By Dr Abdul Waheed Khan/Doha
Four Arab countries suddenly cut all ties with Qatar last year. In a concerted and apparently co-ordinated move, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt blocked their land, sea and air links with the country thereby placing their peninsular neighbour under a de facto siege. The measure, albeit shocking and extreme, was not altogether unexpected as it came on the heels of a weeks-long smear campaign against Qatar.
The aim of this embargo was to ‘tame’ Qatar by coercing it into giving up its independent policies. The punishing move was supposed to discourage Qatar’s individualistic posturing and dragoon it rather into an attitude of capitulation.
The unique geographical location of the gulf country did offer an opportunity for exploitation. At the time, Qatar could meet less than 1% of its food demands locally and relied on its only land border with Saudi Arabia for almost 40% of its food imports. Interrupting this lifeline had a potential to cause an acute food crisis. Severing such a main artery abruptly could potentially throw a country into disarray. A siege of this nature could tactically put tremendous pressure on any country and could technically be an effective strategy in beating a foe into submission.
The blockade failed miserably at achieving its desired aim and paradoxically led to quite an opposite outcome. A dearth did not follow. No food crisis ensued. Qatar did not plunge into chaos. On the contrary, a sort of abundance and superfluity resulted when countries like Iran and Turkey weighed in by multiplying their exports. As a textbook example of turning a threat into an opportunity, local startups mushroomed allowing a steady supply of dairy, vegetables, and various other food items into the market.
lWave of nationalism
Another unexpected and surprising effect of the blockade was a strong wave of nationalism that swept through the country. The blockade had sought to foment dissent: it united the nation instead. Serving as a catalyst in arousing public defiance, the blockade galvanised a deep patriotic sentiment. A portrait of His Highness the Amir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, instantly transformed into a symbol of unity and allegiance of the people with their government. This iconic image of “Tamim Al Majd” became the emblem of solidarity and was ubiquitous in adorning office buildings, car windows, and walls of private and public properties around the country. Women had the image carved into their jewellery whilst men embellished their prayer-beads with it. This extraordinary devotion of people in Qatar, locals and expatriates alike, achieved a cult-like status.
The orchestrators of this imbroglio had clearly overestimated its potential in causing disruption of daily life and stoking unrest. Clearly nothing of the sort happened and the fact is that Qatar as a nation emerged stronger from the blockade.
Nevertheless, the fiasco did not come to pass without effect either. The debacle did cause certain negative consequences in its aftermath. The most immediate and serious of all was perhaps the humanitarian toll exacted on the lives of ordinary people belonging to the Gulf countries embroiled in this hapless escapade.
The blockading countries ordered hundreds of Qataris out and immediately recalled their own nationals from Qatar on pain of being stripped of their citizenship. These hastily taken hostile measures broke apart many families of mixed Gulf nationalities. Many people lost their employment. Scores of students had their education interrupted. The siege countries went as far to send away camels belonging to Qatari owners, causing many of the poor animals to die due to heat and stampede. Expressing sympathy for Qatar or its people was even outlawed and violators were warned of severe punishments.
The Gulf crisis had financial implications for both Qatar and the other countries. Importing goods through newer, longer routes obviously meant higher costs. Qatar Airways, the nation’s flag-carrier, reported losses due to alternative routes and suspension of many routine flights.
As a country, though, Qatar, being the wealthiest nation on the planet, was best poised to absorb a shock of this kind. In order to buoy its economy, the government had simply to tap into its exchequer. Injecting ready money into its economy was not an issue for the country, given its vast LNG reserves, an enormous investment portfolio and a gigantic sovereign wealth fund. Thus although the government had to increase spending, and perhaps slash its routine savings, the common man felt no effect economically whatsoever as a result of the blockade.
Qatar was able to weather the storm safely. However, the effects of the prolonged boycott have started to appear on the siege countries. In fact, they too have been cost dearly by the blockade. Qatar had significant investments in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both these countries were also major exporters to the country. Loss of Qatari market has thus been hurtful to the economies of these countries. Apart from lost business opportunities, stunted tourism revenues, reduced exports, a yet greater danger looms in the form of political instability. The longer this crisis remains, the greater the associated instability and uncertainty will become. The resulting situation will make multinationals wary of doing business in the region and investor confidence will tumble.
lRisk to regional peace
The continued blockade of Qatar poses a huge risk to regional peace and global security. The Middle East is strewn today with flashpoints of armed conflict. Several countries such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya continue to reel from the fallout of bloody wars, uprisings and extremism. The region simply cannot afford any further escalation. The blockade of Qatar against this backdrop of instability and uncertainty is ill-contrived, imprudent and misguided. Letting this dire predicament to continue unchecked harms everyone and poses a serious threat to regional security. Leaving it to chance is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Too long has unfortunately this row lingered. There is simply no reason for it to persist a moment longer. Perpetuation of this unjustified siege benefits none and is harmful to everyone involved. There is no question that this bootless and sordid affair must be brought to an immediate end. The question to ask though is how.
The first and most important step toward resolution is putting this crisis in its proper perspective. It is a must that this problem be viewed as a discord or feud within a regional alliance, not a war between sworn enemies. As an alliance between friendly and brotherly nations, the GCC as a unifying force has contributed to the progress and economic development of the region. Viewing this issue lie outside the remit of GCC threatens regional unity and puts the future of the GCC itself in jeopardy. It is therefore crucial that this problem be regard a common problem of a bloc of brotherly countries not warring factions.
Every country has an inalienable right to sovereignty. All countries are obliged by the UN Charter to respect the principles of national self-determination and non-interference. Acknowledging the same right to sovereignty for Qatar is another essential requisite toward the settlement of the crisis. All GCC countries must accept each other as equals and this is the only way lasting peace can be achieved. This is the only way for laying the foundations of a strong partnership and unity.
lRole of the media
In today’s world, the media has a pivotal role in the escalation or de-escalation of any political crisis. International media outlets have been extremely successful in influencing public opinion and government policies. The media can potentially shape the course of any conflict.
The media sources can play a positive role in resolving the Gulf crisis. Some media outlets have been engaging in a ceaseless smear campaign against Qatar. They have declared a ridiculous and malicious propaganda war against the country. This must cease, if the crisis were to be solved in a successful manner. The media channels must take it upon themselves to act toward the resolution of this crisis. Beating war drums, use of shallow rhetoric and, worst of all, fabricating stories achieves nothing.
The global community owes it to the Middle East to work in earnest toward achieving harmony and peace in the region. Countries like the United States, Russia, and France must use their influence with the Gulf countries to resolve their dispute. The positive role played by countries like Kuwait must be lauded in this regard. It is imperative that more such neutral countries come forward to help appease this quarrel among brotherly countries.
Finally, the all Arab nations must realise the importance of their unity and the grave dangers that a discord in this unity entails. Rather than leaving anything to chance, they must take it upon themselves to work proactively toward solving their problems. Lifting this curse of a blockade may necessitate some compromises on part of all the nations involved, some loss of face even and even some egos might be hurt, but all this is still no price to pay for reuniting the GCC. Let’s hope for the best.
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