On 5 January, the emir hugged his sworn enemy, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, ending the blockade imposed on him by several of his neighbours since 2017. An embargo that cost Qatar dearly, but from which it has emerged strengthened.
The scene was surprising. Firstly because during a global pandemic, a hug between politicians has become an extremely rare, almost unheard of gesture. Then, and above all, because relations between the two Gulf leaders – who fell into each other’s arms on the tarmac of Al-Ula airport in Saudi Arabia on 5 January – have not been warm in recent years.
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Nevertheless, with this gesture between the Qatari emir, Tamim Al Thani, and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, one of the most serious diplomatic crises in the history of the Arabian Peninsula came to an end. It was a crisis that had pitted Qatar against almost all of its neighbours for three years.
Punching above its weight?
Since June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had imposed a land, air and sea blockade on this small emirate – with whom they had broken off all relations – dragging several African countries along with them.
This sudden and brutal decision, which was made during the month of Ramadan, was justified for various reasons which included Qatar’s supposed “support for terrorism” and the Muslim Brotherhood, its warm relations with Iran and Doha’s supposed desire to destabilise the various powers of the Arab world via Al-Jazeera.
Grievances which, for some, were not new, but which were generally not expressed outside the confines of the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In short, Qatar was accused of punching above its weight by practicing an ambitious foreign policy that went contrary to the strategic objectives of its powerful neighbours. It was therefore necessary to send them a message to humble them. A list of thirteen conditions for the lifting of the blockade had been sent to the emir, including the closure of Al-Jazeera and the immediate downgrading of diplomatic relations with Iran.
The international context at the time played a part in the timing: Donald Trump had just come to power in the US and had booked his first official visit to Saudi Arabia, where he was received with great pomp and circumstance. Riyadh then felt like it could pick a fight with its small neighbour, which is home to one of the largest US overseas bases.
Blow after blow
The extremely rich gas emirate is not used to being seen as a victim on the international stage. However, the shock expressed by the Qataris waking up on 5 June 2017, when they discovered that the only road linking them to the peninsula had been closed, was not overplayed. The Qatari authorities were scrambling within hours to find new solutions to feed a population heavily dependent on imports.
More dairy products? That wasn’t the point: Doha was using Qatar Airways to import thousands of cows and set up a national dairy industry in less than a year. Westerners preferred to stick to a cautious neutrality?
Even in Covid-19 times, Riyadh is worth hugging.
It was Turkey that flew to the rescue of its small ally. It sent troops to ensure that its powerful Saudi neighbour would not attempt a coup to instate one of its emirs in Doha. Qatar Airways could no longer fly over the territories of the “blocking” states? In exchange for cash, Iranian airspace became the obligatory passage for planes flying to and from Doha. The blockade thus pushed Qatar further into the arms of Turkey and Iran.
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Admittedly, all this cost the small emirate excruciatingly large sums of money (tens of billions of dollars). Qatar Airways was operating at a loss and Hamad International Airport had lost its status as a regional hub. Qatar’s neighbours also launched a media campaign against Doha, accusing it of many evils from financing terrorism to supporting popular uprisings in the Arab world… and even the Yellow Vests (an accusation echoed by an Egyptian news source).
But Qatar has delivered blow after blow: legal attacks against its neighbours, media coverage of the Yemen conflict and hourly news updates on Al-Jazeera during the Khashoggi affair… 300,000 Qataris have become patriotic and are grateful to their emir for not letting them down.
Tightening ranks against Tehran
Why has Saudi Arabia finally decided to end this crisis, even though Qatar has not agreed to any of its thirteen demands? Riyadh, which is experiencing some tensions with the UAE, wanted to resolve a crisis which has above all earned it bad publicity. Despite their reluctance, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Bahrain have been strongly encouraged to join in the reconciliation.
Not to mention that the new US president, Joe Biden, will not be as firm with regards to Iran as his predecessor was and that Riyadh seeks to unify the Gulf countries against Tehran. However, Doha does not intend to break with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field, and emir Tamim would rather see himself as a mediator between the Saudis and Iranians.
For its part, and even if some of its political leaders are quick to assert that the country is doing better since the blockade, Qatar could not afford to prolong a crisis that cut it off from its region – and which has cost it a small fortune. Even in Covid-19 times, Riyadh is worth hugging.
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