The Middle East is infamous for its intense geopolitical history. The oil-rich region has encountered civil wars, proxy wars, illegal annexations, popular uprisings, religious insurgencies, and even the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Decades of turmoil have left only a select few nations relatively unbothered, and those nations have prospered. Qatar is one of those nations. The small Gulf kingdom has silently become the sixth richest nation in the world as of 2021, with a GDP per capita reaching over $60,000, and a booming economy attracting workers from all parts of Asia.
Qatar has remained relatively uninvolved in the region’s disputes by making friends and maintaining relations with virtually every nation in the area. Prior to 2017, the nation held ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, three of the Middle East’s major powers. Qatar even houses military bases in the conflict-ridden region and contains the largest amount of American soldiers in the Middle East, but also about 5,000 Turkish troops as well. Throughout the duration of the Arab Spring, Qatar didn’t see any domestic protest as the government welcomed ideological change across the region. Regardless, there have been several blemishes on the nation’s record, as human rights abuses towards migrant workers and questionable funding have stirred up controversy regarding the kingdom.
In 2017, however, Qatar, along with the rest of the world, was taken aback by the predicament that presented itself with regards to the small Gulf kingdom. In order to understand the situation for Qatar in 2017, it is important to understand a few key developments. The first is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The states have been at odds with each other for decades. Many of the many recent conflicts in the Middle East are considered proxy wars between the two military powerhouses, and tensions between the two have only been rising in the past few years.
The second development relates to Turkey. The nation has had quite a rough history in the region, especially considering the Ottoman Empire’s antagonistic control of the Arabian Peninsula in the past centuries. While relations have not grown into conflict, they have not subsided either, and Turkish military presence has not been welcome in the area.
Thirdly, the Qatari’s support for opposition movements in the region during the Arab Spring led to serious negative sentiments on the state from other Gulf states. Some Arab states saw it as traitorous and dissatisfactory from their neighbour.
However, this negative sentiment is not solely a facet of the Arab Spring. It is also linked to other affairs which have garnered opposition from Gulf neighbours including their news reporting, alleged terrorist funding, and interference in foreign affairs. These all often conflict with the interests of other autocratic powers in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Despite growing antagonism, the events that unfolded in 2017 came as a surprise for many. In June 2017, Qatar was given an ultimatum by four unlikely nations. These four nations consisted of fellow Arab speaking, Sunni majority neighbours of Qatar: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Qatar’s new foes demanded, among other things, that the small Gulf kingdom cease all ties with Iran and ‘terrorist groups’, shut down government-run news outlet Al Jazeera, and end Turkish military presence in the country. They also demanded that Qatar align itself politically, militarily, socially, and economically with other Arab Gulf states. The last requirement for Qatar was to comply with all demands within 10 days or risk the list being invalidated altogether.
Qatar did not comply. Soon, the nation was cut off by the aggressors entirely. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates all gave Qatari citizens 14 days to leave and made it illegal for their own citizens to reside or even travel to Qatar. The airspace of all four nations was closed and so was Qatar’s only land border going into Saudi Arabia. On one day, the nation experienced peaceful coexistence with their neighbours. On the next, they were being suffocated by them.
As one may imagine, the initial effects of the blockade led to a good amount of hardship and difficulty in Qatar. Economically, the nation was forced to quickly find new trading partners, as 40 percent of its previous imports came through its only land crossing. Qatari residents had to rush to stores to load up on goods that would soon be unavailable due to the new restrictions. In addition, Qatar Airways had to reroute many of its flights in the area due to the sudden lack of access to airspace. Ultimately, the state had only a short period of time to find a way to become more self-sufficient and maintain its favourable quality of life.
The coalition of the four Gulf states lifted the blockade on Qatar three and a half years later, on January 5, 2021. They achieved none of their goals. Not one of the demands they originally put forth was met by Qatar and, maybe more surprisingly, Qatar did not suffer from not complying with those demands. Qatar acted efficiently and effectively to combat the measures and succeeded. Not only that, but the isolated Gulf nation emerged in better condition than it was at the imposition of the blockade. Qatar grew more self-sufficient economically as a result of its trade dilemma as it moved away from importing key commodities to producing its own. It also fostered greater trade relations with Turkey and Iran, the countries it was discouraged from establishing relationships with.
These relations grew not only in the realm of trade but also in foreign policy and general partnership. Other friendships were also undisturbed, markedly that with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group dubbed as ‘terrorist’ in the initial demands. Al Jazeera also remained intact, and although it did halt favouring certain actors, it continued to provide the news consistently and freely.
In conclusion, Qatar can certainly be condemned for several things, including their treatment of migrant workers, their support for certain terrorist organizations, and their questionable funding. However, the nation was unpleasantly surprised with the actions of their four regional counterparts, holding on to emerge as a new and improved nation. In the domain of Middle Eastern geopolitics, it is hard to win, but nonetheless, the small kingdom faced off against more tried, powerful, opponents and came out victorious.
Edited by Arielle De Leon
Photo credits: “Qatar” by Juanedc Published June 30, 2010. This work was sourced under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license. No changes were made.
Santhindu Wijesooriya is a first-year student at McGill University. He plans to double major in International Development Studies and Political Science while minoring in Finance. Santhindu is currently a Staff Writer for Catalyst and looks to grow his knowledge and experience in International Development through this.