A Guide to the Saudi-led Embargo of Qatar
Almost a year and a half since the Saudi embargo, Qatar remains in a peculiar position in global politics. Five countries have cut their diplomatic relations with Qatar, while neighboring states of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have imposed a blockade on the country geographically smaller than Connecticut and less populous than the New York City borough of Queens. This embargo was launched amid accusations that Qatar was supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and Isis, as well as the the promotion of Al-Jazeera sponsored fake news, and the hacking of Qatari websites. In July 2017, the countries involved in the crisis created a list of thirteen demands to end the Qatar-Gulf crisis, ranging from challenging Qatar to cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, including all terrorist organizations, as well as the shutting down of various Qatari funds, such as Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed and the Middle East Eye. Qatar dismissed these requests, which could have long-term effects given its wide-ranging investments in third-party countries.
Since Qatar’s international connections tend to be largely economically based, its international allegiance seems to be two-fold. On one hand, they remain allies with the United States and many European countries as well as Russia, China, and South Korea with billions of dollars invested in each of them. However, within the Middle East, Qatar has aligned with Turkey and Iran to circumnavigate the embargo. In return, each of these countries is receiving preferential trade and financial deals as evidenced with the Qatar-Turkey currency deal. As a result of these diverse ties, many are questioning the wisdom of the Saudi-led embargo amidst its ongoing struggle for influence with Iran.
Given the disparity in population, geographic area, and economic prowess, many expected the Saudi embargo on Qatar to have a detrimental effect. However, the contrary has happened. Qatar transformed a losing hand by strengthening relations with Turkey through investments totaling over with an additional eighteen billion slated for 2018. This has a dramatic effect on the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. While Turkey has the largest economy and military force in the Middle East, it remains in dire financial straits due to the policies of its president: Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet, with the strategic intervention by Qatar, Erdogan has felt more comfortable critiquing Saudi Arabia in response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Though, Turkey is not the only country that Qatar has sought to form a strategic partnership with.
Similar to Turkey, Qatar has sought to improve its relationship with Pakistan through a mixture of financial incentives and trade. As a result of these initiatives, Pakistan has remained a vigilant ally of Qatar throughout the embargo, repeatedly urging dialogue between the feuding countries. Furthermore, Pakistan has increased their food exports to Qatar by 70% as a result of Qatar’s inability to access the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian food markets, while Qatar’s natural gas exports to Pakistan have risen by 37%. Though, with the recent overtures by Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, Qatar risks losing a critical ally in the region. This could leave them in a much more vulnerable position than before. However, Qatar has a much more powerful ally in the form of China. Their relationship before and after the Saudi embargo has been complex and dynamic. For instance, Qatar has invested over ten billion dollars in 2014 to benefit China’s healthcare, infrastructure, and property sectors, and has since promised to invest 15-20 billion dollars in Chinese real-estate and infrastructure over the next five years. Moreover, Qatar has been a strategic ally of China given its need for natural gas with Qatar supplying over 20% of the country’s natural gas. Yet, this relationship is not purely economic. For example, Qatar does not require Chinese citizens to apply for visas or permanent residency in the country. Furthermore, Chinese government mouthpieces have spoken to the countries’ desire to deepen ties via tourism, cultural initiatives, and financial penetration by the countries’ respective banks into the others’ home market. Given the sheer size of the Chinese market, the Saudi embargo’s effects may be dilated by the re-orientation of Qatari trade and exports to China and the greater Asian market. This strategic pivot reflects the multi-faceted approach that Qatar has taken to the crisis.
Another instance of Qatari resilience and, indeed, perseverance has been in the realm of global sports. When Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup in 2010, much of the world was surprised with the choice. No Middle Eastern country had ever hosted the games and other countries, such as Turkey, have a more robust infrastructure and international soccer presence. However, in the eight years since the announcement, Qatar has created an impressive array of stadiums and amenities for international tourists that will flock to the country for the tournament. This comes despite the inhumane treatment of the construction workers on stadiums in Qatar, yet Qatar has been able to brush off these concerns without any concrete penalty. The 2022 World Cup is projected to have a positive effect on the country in terms of tourism, foreign relations, and the economy with many estimating that nearly four billion people will watch the tournament, while over three million are expected to attend. These vast economic benefits will strengthen the Qatari hand in its struggle against the Saudi-led embargo as its receives significant sums of money from the tournament as well as enjoying the prestige that comes with it – both things that would come in handy when establishing new relationships and strengthening existing ones.
Taking all this into account, Qatar’s efforts have shown a significant, well-thought out response to the Saudi-led embargo. By utilizing the resources of regional and global powers, Qatar has been able to side-step the Saudi effort, which arguably should have starved its economy. Now, Qatar stands to gain dividends from its strategy as it is projected to grow 2.6% this year and is set to host one of the world’s largest and most prestigious tournaments in the form of the World Cup. This leads us to the question: is the Saudi-led embargo worth continuing?