Today marks a year since the Qatar blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt.
On 5 June 2017 – in the holy month of Ramadan – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposing an air, sea and land blockade on Qatar. The four Arab countries accused Qatar of allegedly supporting terrorism and violating a 2014 agreement with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia and the other blockading countries criticised Qatar’s relations with Iran and accused the Qatar-owned television network Al Jazeera of bias and propaganda-supported coverage. Qatar has denied all these charges.
How it all began
In May 2017, the Qatar News Agency (QNA) website and other government media platforms were hacked. Hackers posted fake news attributed to the Emir, HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, that expressed support for Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Israel. Qatar denied the statements, claiming it was unaware of their origins. However, it was widely publicised and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries expressed concern. Qatar hired US intelligence to find the origins of the hackers, which was believed to be the UAE, who denied the allegations. Soon after, Russian hackers were discovered to have been behind the first reported hacks. It was announced in August 2017 that five individuals allegedly involved in the hacking were arrested in Turkey.
However, between 5 and 6 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar. Bahrain was the first to announce the severing of ties in the early hours of 5 June. Other countries such as Yemen (Hadi government), Libya (Tobruk-based government), Jordan, Somalia (regions of Puntland, Hirshabelle and Galmudug), the Maldives, Mauritania, Djibouti, Chad, Comoros, Gabon and Eritrea have either downgraded diplomatic ties without fully cutting ties or issued statements condemning Qatar.
The airlines and embassies of blockading countries immediately pulled out of Qatar. Citizens from the blockading countries – except Egypt – living in Qatar were ordered to return. Equally Qataris living in the blockading countries – except Egypt – had to return to Qatar. There were reports of students having their studies discontinued, families were torn apart, and those travelling from Qatar to Omrah or Hajj in Saudi Arabia were denied entry.
Two weeks into the Qatar blockade, the blockading countries made a range of demands, from cutting support to the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups including Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and ISIS, to closing the Al Jazeera television network. The 13 point-list also demanded Qatar to downgrade relations with Iran and close a Turkish military base.
Qatar was given 10 days to comply with all of the demands, which also included paying an unspecified sum in compensation for what they claimed to be ‘financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies’. If Qatar complied with the list, the country would be audited once a month for the first year, and then once per quarter in the second year after it takes effect. This means Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance for the following 10 years. However, the document did not specify what the countries would do if Qatar refused to comply. And Qatar did not comply. In early July 2017, the blockading countries reduced their 13 demands to six principles. Regardless, Qatar did not comply, denying their accusations and refusing to let the countries interfere in their international relations.
As part of the blockade, the blockading countries cut off any supply to Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt no longer export goods to Qatar. However, some food and products from the blockading countries have found their way into Qatar through third parties or countries. It wasn’t until recently, in May 2018, that Qatar banned goods from the blockading countries. Since the blockade and since Saudi Arabia was one of the main suppliers of food products, Qatar has been forced to airlift staples such as dairy products at higher costs than of transporting those foods by land. Imports into Qatar plunged about 40% from a year earlier in the initial weeks of the blockade, but they have since mostly returned to normal as Qatar has found new sources of products in countries such as Turkey and China, and developed new shipping routes through neighbouring countries such as Oman and Kuwait.
Before the blockade, approximately 90% of Qatar’s food was imported, with produce coming from surrounding GCC countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The blockade has brought Qatar closer to its food security goals. Since the blockade, the country has produced 24% of its vegetable needs, 80% dates, 98% fresh poultry, 80% fish, 50% green animal fodder and 82% of milk.
Soon after the blockade, Qatar saw the official inauguration of the Hamad Port in September 2017 in Umm Al Houl. It has the largest access to the sea, and gives Qatar a gateway to over 150 worldwide destinations, providing complete independence in its global import and export of goods. South of Doha, Hamad is the newest of Qatar’s six ports – the others being Doha, Mesaieed, Haloul, Ras Laffan and Ruwais – and is the largest port of its kind in the Middle East. The USD7.4 billion project covers a total of 28.5 sq km. Qatar Ports Management Company (Mwani Qatar) expanded its maritime network by launching several direct shipping lines between Hamad Port and a number of ports in the region and beyond. The new routes, operated by Mwani and other shipping agencies at the port, connect Qatar ports with Sohar and Salah in Oman, Shuwaikh port in Kuwait, Karachi port in Pakistan, Izmir port in Turkey, and the Mundra and Nava Shuva ports in India. Because of these new trade routes, Qatar Railways Company was able to receive the delivery of the first four of 75 Doha Metro trains through Hamad Port, two months ahead of schedule, from the Japanese port of Kobe.
Qatar Airways and air travel
Due to the limited air blockade imposed by the neighboring blockading countries, Qatar’s flag carrier lost access to 18 cities including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. According to Qatar Airways CEO, HE Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways has experienced a ‘substantial’ loss in its last financial year, as a direct consequence of the regional dispute. Following the blockade, Saudi Arabia and the other blockading countries banned Qatar Airways and other airlines flying to and from Qatar to fly to their countries. Airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, Air Arabia, FlyDubai, Gulf Air and Egypt Air no longer fly to or from Qatar. For those wishing to travel to these blockading countries, they have to take longer routes either via Oman or Kuwait. Qatar Airways flights to certain countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Morocco, Algeria and more are now longer due to the air blockade.
Despite the challenges that the blockade has represented for the airline, Qatar Airways has pursued new alternatives, and expanded its travel network with new international partnerships. In February 2018, Qatar Airways became Air Italy’s new shareholder, with the aim of making Air Italy a sustainable airline alternative for Italy. In April 2018, Qatar Airways announced an agreement with JetBlue Airways in the United States, that extended to JetSuiteX accelerating its semi-private air service on the US West Coast. Qatar Airways owns stakes in several airlines including Cathay Pacific and British Airways-parent International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG). Qatar Airways currently flies to more than 150 destinations.
Soon after the blockade, in August 2017, Qatar announced free entry for tourists of 80 nationalities. Nationals from at least 80 countries can now take advantage of visa-free entry into Qatar, with visa waiver upon arrival. Citizens of these countries will not need to apply or pay for a visa; instead, a multi-entry waiver will be issued at the airport, upon presentation of a valid passport (valid for a minimum of six months) and a confirmed onward or return ticket.
Al Jazeera and the media ban
Since the blockade was announced, the blockading countries denounced Al Jazeera for being biased and Qatar’s propaganda arm. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE all blocked access to Qatari news agencies, including the controversial Qatar-based Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia shut down the local office of Al Jazeera Media Network. When the 13-point list was announced, shutting down Al Jazeera was one of the demands. Although Al Jazeera can now be found on air in the blockading countries, Qatar-based sports network BeIN Sports is not able to broadcast.
Since the blockade, the Emir, HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has made eloquent and laudable speeches on the crisis and the country’s sovereignty. The Emir gave his first speech addressing the Qatar blockade at the opening session of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. HH Sheikh Tamim called the blockade ‘unjust’ and renewed his call for talks ‘based on mutual respect for sovereignty’ to end the Gulf diplomatic crisis. In October 2017, the Emir appeared on CBS News’ 60 Minutes where he said, ‘Our sovereignty is a red line. We don’t accept anybody interfering our sovereignty.’ In November 2017, the Emir attended the opening of the 46th ordinary session of the Advisory Council and gave a speech conveying that Qatar welcomes dialogue that can end the dispute and in case the blockading countries do not want dialogue then Qatar would not be affected by the dispute.
In August 2017, Qatar announced that it will be offering certain expatriates permanent residency. Just late last month, the Advisory Council gave its approval to a draft law and will submit its recommendations on the matter to the Cabinet. Under the provisions of the draft legislation, the Minister of Interior, HH Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, may grant a permanent residency identification (ID) card to a non-Qatari if the person meets the conditions specified in the law.
In December 2017, just in time for Qatar National Day on 18 December, the Minister of Municipality and Environment, HE Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Rumaihi, opened the Lusail Expressway project after completing all its main work which also includes the biggest and tallest monument in Qatar, Wahda Arches, at Interchange 5/6. The interchange was named after the date on which the Qatar blockade began. The monument was also illuminated with the colours of the Qatari flag – symbolising patriotism and solidity months after the Qatar blockade.
Qatar may have incurred heavy financial costs as a result of the blockade – estimated at USD43 billion by Bloomberg – but Qatar remains resilient. According to Bloomberg, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) described the blockade as ‘manageable’ for Qatar, with growth forecast to reach 2.6% this year, up from 2.1% in 2017.
After one year, it is still unclear how long the blockade will continue. Tensions are still high between the neighbouring countries with very little evidence of resolution on the horizon.
What are your thoughts on the Qatar blockade? How has it affected you?
Cover image by Qatari artist Ahmed Almaadheed
Author: Ola Diab
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