The Qatari Peninsula Sets Sail Under Blockade

In the past year, Qatar has faced many challenges as a result of the Gulf embargo. Marika Annunziata explains how the country has overcome the hurdles of the blockades.

This post was originally published in Political Insights.


More than a year after the ban was imposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, without losing a firm hold on its principles and without making concession to its neighbors Qatar leads the charge for influence at the international level. Doha’s government argues that the embargo strengthens the cohesiveness of the population and fosters domestic economic diversification. Nonetheless, structural imbalances remain.

But still waters do not necessarily run deep. The lazy sway of the vessels flying the dark red and white flag is quite misleading, for the waters of the Gulf have been murky and the atmosphere heavy with insecurity. An unprecedented turmoil has overcome the region since Qatar was ostracized by the Gulf Cooperation Council because of three of its neighbors, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt. On July 5, 2017, those four governments and some allies of convenience imposed the ban and declared a break of diplomatic and economic relation with Doha; Riyadh immediately closed its borders effectively cordoning off the Qatari peninsula. Since then, among Saudi Arabian groups some have also suggested the idea of a two hundred feet long and a couple of hundred yard-wide canal between the two countries, which would definitely cut off the Qatari emirate from the mainland. However, in the absence of official confirmation from Riyadh, that goal still appears to be a pipe dream, which Doha refuses to takes into serious consideration.

The disputes, those which foreshadowed the crisis, can be traced back years with Saudi animosity and hostility towards their emancipated and extremely gas-rich neighbor. Nevertheless, Doha was caught off guard by the ban declared during Ramadan last year. The neighboring Arab states have established a partial ban closing their airspace and maritime areas to Qatari ships and planes. Furthermore, according to the International Monetary Fund, nearly 40 billion dollars have been withdrawn from domestic banks by concerned overseas investors and by the citizens of the states that have imposed the ban. So far, a vast majority of the imports, in particular fresh produce as well as construction and building materials formerly imported from Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have been covered by an airlift from Europe, Iran and the Indian sub-continent.

On June 22, 2017, the Associated Press disclosed that Kuwait, acting as a mediator, presented Qatar a detailed list of demands that Qatar would have to adhere to for the embargo to be lifted. More than a year has passed and the mediation sought by Kuwait within the framework of Gulf Cooperation Council, has lost its momentum. Furthermore, the reconciliation procedure scheduled to take place in Washington has been stalled for months due to discrepancies inside the American administration and Abu Dhabi’s unwillingness. The four Arab States have not budged on their demands, which Doha considered unrealistic and impractical.

Qatar, now more than ever before, is on an economic, diplomatic, military and medias warpath; this cold war has taken a toll on millions of families scattered on both sides of the Saudi Arabia – Qatar borders, as well as on binational citizens inhibited from traveling. The whole issue is whether the ban poses a chance or an obstacle for Doha. On the political front, Qatar has never held general elections, saved for municipal councils, or permitted political parties. In terms of the economy, Doha has few reasons of recriminations. According to the World Bank, in 2017, the Qatari GDP per capita, in purchasing power parity terms, is still ranked as world-leading, doubling Swiss GDP. The oil discovery in Qatar dates back to before World War II, but the discovery of a huge gas pocket within the Iranian and Qatari territorial waters in 1971 introduced the peninsular emirate to the international stage for the first time. Ever since then, the joint exploitation warranted good and profitable relations between the two governments. Furthermore, at the current level, Doha is third largest producer and holder of gas reserves after Russia and Iran.

Despite the embargo, Qatar has been able to enjoy continued economic growth. Doha has been able to quickly revitalize its economy by diversifying its import sources, now extended to Turkey, Iran, Asia and Europe, and deferring part of the traffic once passing through the Dubai port of Jebel Ali to the Omani ports. In fact, the Qatari government continues to say that the embargo has boosted the country’s economic diversification. Built within a decade with a 7.4 billion dollar budget, the Hamad port in the southern part of Doha has become a giant in the region, in spite of the narrow domestic market.

But Qatar still has to cope with recurring trials: from allegations of bribery and corruption, to the working conditions of dozens of thousands of Asian employees on the job sites. The reallocation of the 2022 football World Cup, brought up during the last years especially by the Western media has become unlikely. Moreover, FIFA repeatedly reiterated its confidence in the Qatari government. Still, if the ban remains Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Egypt among others might not take part in the competition.

In a similar vein, Qatar Airways, the flagship airlines of the country saw its fair share of trials. Its ambitions were quickly stymied when it was placed on the No-Fly List in the first days of the embargo. The airlines resumed operations subsequently going so far as opening new routes in order to balance the eighteen closed destinations. Nevertheless, the blockade of the airspace of the states that have imposed the ban has resulted in losses and Doha, ultimately, had to divert the air traffic to the Iranian airspace, as the director of the company reluctantly admitted.

Nonetheless, in the absence of more recent data the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute assessed that the imports of weapons in Qatar have increased 166 percent between 2013 and 2017 in comparison to the period 2008 – 2012, while it boosted of the 225 percent in Saudi Arabia, which is now the first world importing country. The crisis has created a fortune for arms dealers and only recently the threat of a Saudi or Emirati incursions by land, genuinely feared by Doha during the last year, dropped. The hold that the United States had in the Gulf and the interests related to the natural resources appears once again make it the only power able to stop this feud between neighbors in order to avoid a full-scale war.

Overall, while the local actors appear to be struggling, at the macroeconomic level Qatar has successfully mitigated the worst effects of the ban, as per the findings of a mission of the International Monetary Fund in May. Nonetheless, the strain remains vivid and in Doha it is difficult to feel safe from an unexpected storm ready to unleash upon the Gulf’s dark waters.

Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.