What's really behind the blockade of Qatar?

May 3 2018 / New Statesman

Like the European royals, the ruling families of the Gulf states are inter-related. This does not stop them feuding, of course. Intermarriage and shared bloodlines among the royals could not prevent Europe sleepwalking to war in 1914 and the question being asked in the Gulf region is: will the cold war between, on one side, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, on the other, Qatar turn hot any time soon? That seems unlikely, not least because Qatar is the site of a strategically vital American airbase and, under pressure from the Trump administration, has resumed spending heavily on military hardware from the West.

But the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar – supported by Egypt – is hurting the world’s richest per capita state. Food can no longer be brought in from Saudi Arabia (much is now coming through Iran or from Turkey), with which Qatar shares its only land border. Qatari nationals can no longer travel directly to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the UAE (where many of them have property and financial interests), though they can enter Kuwait or Oman, which have remained neutral in the simmering conflict.

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Most Qataris I spoke to during my visit to Doha do not understand the motivation for the blockade but are angered and wounded by it. According to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS, the buccaneering 32-year-old Saudi crown prince), Qatar is a sponsor of terrorism and is too close to Turkey and Iran – with which it shares the world’s largest natural gas field, located in the Persian Gulf. (Qatari liquid natural gas provides 30 per cent of the UK’s gas import requirements.)

The Saudis also despise Al-Jazeera, especially Al-Jazeera Arabic, which gives a platform to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other Islamist groups critical of Saudi Arabia. (Until 2017 Hamas and its leader, Khaled Mashal, were based in Doha, having left Damascus in 2013.) “All of this is just a smokescreen,” said a spokeswoman when I visited the foreign ministry.

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So what’s really going on among the Gulf royals? Most Qataris believe that MBS and his ally Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), crown price of Abu Dhabi, are envious of the upstart kingdom of Qatar, especially its soft power – Al-Jazeera, the 2022 football World Cup, de facto ownership of Paris Saint-Germain and so on – and irritated by its independent foreign policy. There’s no doubt that the Qataris were close to the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi before he was toppled in a military coup in Egypt, and have funded assorted jihadist groups in Syria and elsewhere. But then so has Saudi Arabia, which has also systematically exported militant Wahhabism throughout the world, not least in Britain.

MBS is tall, swaggering, and supremely ambitious. At a recent meeting with the editorial board of the New York Times, he spoke of his desire to remake the geopolitics of the Gulf and the wider Middle East as well as counter the influence of the Wahhabist clerical establishment. He is deeply hostile to Iran and the Shia rising across the region; he is also splenetic when asked about Qatar.

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In Doha I was a guest at the grand opening of the spectacular National Library, seven years in construction. The Qatari royals were in attendance and so, more surprisingly, was Nicolas Sarkozy, the troubled former French president (“the Qataris don’t forget their friends”, I was told). The library’s chief architect is Rem Koolhaas and he spoke well of architecture as the “most eloquent and compelling form of optimism”. Less persuasive was Nicholas Negroponte, the digital guru and founder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, who wandered around the stage as if giving a hyperactive Ted talk while boasting he’d “seen the future”. I should have asked him about the next Arsenal manager and placed a bet.

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“Qatar is at a crossroads,” Sheikha Hind bint Hamad al-Thani said to me at a meeting at the Qatar Foundation for Education, of which she is chief executive. She is the sister of the emir, and I’d previously met her at a lunch in London. She is calm and lucid and wants Qatar to be renowned for the quality of its higher education, especially for women. But wasn’t she concerned that a more educated and questioning population would agitate for political reform? Most of the 300,000 Qatari nationals live well. They don’t pay tax or utility bills and healthcare is free. Is that enough? “The region is being torn apart,” she said. “People cannot see their relatives in other countries [because of the blockade]. We need open discussion and debate. In Doha, 20 years ago, people didn’t debate. But with the universities we’ve established – teaching students how to debate in a healthy way – we’ve changed the culture. We love change. People can change very quickly – and that’s the advantage of a small country.”

She was asked about the plight of migrant workers – especially the poor construction workers from the Indian subcontinent whose treatment and working conditions have caused outrage around the world. “We have a manual for migrant workers and we do our best to improve it [sic],” she said.

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As I travelled around Doha I kept seeing a portrait of a handsome Omar Sharif-like figure, with thick swept-back dark hair and clipped moustache. It turned out to be a flattering caricature of Tamin bin Hamad, the 37-year-old emir around whom a cult of personality has developed since the blockade began. The illustration – now the emblem of Qatari nationalism – was not commissioned by the state but drawn by a young artist, Ahmed al-Maadheed, who then circulated it on social media. He’s since been offered $10m for the original but chose instead to give it as a gift to the emir. One suspects the young man is now living very well indeed.