The Qatar Blockade

September 22, 2020

By: Mohamed Ahmed

, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates imposed a land, sea, and air blockade against the small Gulf country of Qatar. These four countries, as well as a handful of others that joined later on, cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, accusing them of supporting terrorism and having too close ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia went as far as to even expel Qatari camels. Three years later, there has seemingly been no progress towards a resolution. The United Nations International Court of Justice sided with Qatar in a racial discrimination case against The United Arab Emirates and many nations have called for an end to the blockade. However, to completely understand the conflict between these seemingly very similar nations, we need to understand their history.

The Gulf countries are generally considered the six countries around the Arabian Gulf; Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain. In 1981, these six nations founded a political and economic alliance called the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the GCC. It was set up to support and protect their shared interests and similarities, which they have a lot of. The countries share common ground on many things like climate, landscape, language, religion, culture, and oil wealth. In fact, they even share the same heritage. The borders of the Gulf countries were drawn up relatively recently by the British and French governments who had colonized much of the area in the early 1910s. However, when they drew up the borders they did not take into account the tribes and people living in the region resulting in a separation of these tribes and families. The modern-day ruling families in these countries come from the tribes that prevailed and became the most powerful. Most notably, the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Al Thani’s in Qatar, and the Al Nahyan in the UAE. Many of these families intermarried back when they were just tribes, so many of the ruling families are related in some way.

The House of Saud is regarded as the most powerful of the ruling families. They always saw themselves in the lead, and in many ways they were. Saudi Arabia is the largest, and most oil-rich of the six countries. It is home to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest Islamic sites. It also has the strongest relationship with the West, especially with the United States. In many ways, Saudi Arabia’s dominance amongst the GCC countries went unquestioned until 1995. This was when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani staged a coup against his father and placed himself as the Emir of Qatar. He made many changes that transformed Qatar from a small nation whose economy mainly relied on pearl diving to a massive economic and political force in the region. He strengthened ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s greatest enemy, because they share a massive oil reserve. Qatar also launched a news network, Al Jazeera. This gave a voice to those who were often silenced by the governments of other GCC nations. Most notably, it gave a platform to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. As the perceived leaders of the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia views any other form of Islamist leadership as a threat to their leadership.

Then came the 2011 Arab Spring. A series of pro-democracy uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa which toppled many tyrannical regimes. Much of the Spring was covered by Al Jazeera. This coverage gave a voice to the voiceless and projected these voices all across the Middle East and reached global audiences. After the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Saudis became incredibly wary of the power that Al Jazeera and Qatar had. They feared that what had happened in Egypt would inspire their people to do the same. After Egypt’s revolution, elections were held and President Mohamed Morsi was elected. Morsi was the first democratically elected president of Egypt and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. A year into his presidency he was removed in a military coup. This was followed by a military crackdown that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the imprisonment of even more. This was all covered on Al Jazeera. Qatar welcomed those who fled from Egypt, many of whom were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and were considered terrorists by high ranking Egyptian military officials. 

From all of this information on the history of this feud among the Gulf countries, it is clear that tensions between Qatar and its neighbours are high for more than just one reason. The countries blockading against Qatar have a list of thirteen demands. The main three require the downgrading of diplomatic ties with Iran, the shutting down of Al Jazeera, and requires Qatar sever ties with terrorist groups. Qatar maintains that it does not support terrorism and refuses to act upon any of their demands, claiming that the blockading nations are infringing on their sovereignty. The blockade did initially have negative effects on the Qatari economy but it did bounce back as a result of actions taken by the government such as providing loans to banks, trading more with Iran and Turkey, and manufacturing goods locally as they could no longer rely heavily on imports.

Qatar continues to thrive despite the blockade, it has the highest GDP per capita in the world and will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. As the blockade goes into its third year, it is clear that these two opposing sides are at a standstill. One side is a small nation, ruthlessly fighting for power and influence in the region. Taking steps like expanding its economy, building one of the largest international news networks, and harbouring those fleeing unjust persecution from neighbouring countries. The other side is a group of large nations, trying to protect the status quo in the region in order to keep power in the hands of the Saudis. It is unclear which side will prevail, but it is clear that this blockade has not gone the way that the four blockading countries were intending for it to go.


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