The siege of Qatar isn’t working

254 2017-06-24

What is it like to be under siege in Qatar? For a sense of the hardship, consider the tongue-in-cheek Twitter feed @DohaUnderSiege. It reports that at the Four Seasons hotel in Doha, the capital, the chocolate fountain has “slowed to a drizzle”; some guests are hoarding caviar; and “escape yachts” are being prepared.

The actual privation is about as trifling. In terms of GDP per head, Qatar is one of the world’s richest countries. After it was cut off by its neighbours in the Gulf on June 5th, there was a brief shortage of milk and poultry, as some locals squirrelled away food. But the supermarkets are again fully stocked. Shoppers may look twice at the new Turkish labels on their dairy products, but there is no urgent need for the 4,000 cows that a patriotic businessman plans to airlift in.

Several Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), hoped to isolate Qatar over allegations that it foments regional unrest, funds terrorism and is too close to Iran—all charges it denies. But their two-week-old blockade has so far had the opposite effect. Turkey has stepped in to supply most of the food that used to come overland from Saudi Arabia. Iran and Morocco are sending more. The government has also reached a deal with Oman that will give incoming ships an alternative to using Emirati ports.

Qatar did not trade all that much with its neighbours even before they closed their borders. Most of its lucrative oil and gas exports go to Asia and are flowing out as normal—so the economy, boosted by public spending on infrastructure, should continue growing. Qatar is “extremely comfortable” with its financial position, says Ali Sherif al-Emadi, the finance minister. Its foreign-currency savings equal 250% of its GDP (twice the level of Saudi Arabia), so it can withstand any pressure on its currency. After taking an early hit, Qatar’s financial markets have stabilised.

There is still some cause for worry in Doha. New trade routes may take longer and cost more. Fitch, a credit-rating agency, has put Qatar on a negative watch and foreign investors remain spooked. Banks may find it harder to get financing, which could dampen the credit growth that fuelled the economy in recent years. Qatar Airways, which just announced record profits, has been bruised by the decision of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE to ban it from their airspace. Doha’s stature as an air hub is now in question.

But if Saudi Arabia and the UAE hoped to cause so much pain that Qatar gave in to their demands, their ploy has so far failed. The Qataris insist that they do not even know what their accusers want. They deny supporting extremists or Islamists (though they harbour quite a few of them and recently asked some to leave). They claim that other Gulf states, such as the UAE, also have close ties to Iran. And they have questioned a list drawn up by Saudi Arabia and the UAE of 59 people and 12 groups with links to both Qatar and terrorism. Some are based elsewhere and have links to Saudi Arabia as well.

What most upsets Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Qatar’s refusal, over two decades, to toe the line laid down by the bigger powers. Al Jazeera, its satellite-TV channel, promotes dissident, often Islamist, viewpoints. It cheered on Arab revolutionaries in 2011, as the rest of the Gulf watched in fear. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, fund old-fashioned strongmen, such as Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. The current dispute “is one more battle of the Arab spring”, says Ibrahim Fraihat of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Efforts by Kuwait and others to mediate have gone nowhere. As a next step, the Saudis and Emiratis have threatened to cut off firms that do business with Qatar. But destabilising the Gulf in this way will also hurt their own economies. “I think if we’re going to lose a dollar they will lose a dollar also,” says Mr Emadi.

So far Qatar has remained calm, while trying to rally international support. It has not responded in kind to the expulsion of Qatari citizens by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. The Qatari media have been told not to stir the pot. The government has even hired the law firm of John Ashcroft, a former American attorney-general, to audit its efforts at cutting off terrorists’ funds.

The roots of the conflict run deep and neither side is feeling much pressure, so a stalemate has set in. No one expects it to be resolved soon; but in the end it is still the Qataris who have the most to lose.

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