There’s an Arabic proverb popular in the Middle East: “The best answer will come from the person who is not angry.”
Unfortunately, the anger is long and deep in the nasty row dividing some of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, which means any quick answer to this diplomatic and security headache is hard to see.
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates banded together to impose an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar, the tiny but wealthy country that hosts Washington’s most strategic military base in the Persian Gulf, over what they claim is its willingness to work with Shiite Iran and its suspected support for jihadi groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar, which sits atop some of the word’s largest proven natural gas reserves, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, claiming the accusations against it are driven less by legitimate security concerns than by regional jealousy over the nation’s massive economic prosperity in recent years.
But the Saudis, Emiratis and others aren’t yielding. The boycotting nations have cut off land, sea and air routes to Qatar, a small nation that sticks out like a thumb in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are all heavily armed members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the U.S.-backed political-military alliance that also includes Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. While the latter three have stayed neutral toward the boycott against Qatar, the acrimony is so deep in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that many say it puts the very future of the GCC at risk.
Qatar’s leaders say the accusations against them are over the top.
While issuing broad denials in public and rejecting the Saudi demands, several officials — including members of the Qatari royal family — in background interviews contemptuously dismissed the charges as part of an “ill-conceived smear campaign” orchestrated by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“The accusation that Qatar supports terrorism is ridiculous,” said one Qatari official. “How could a country hosting a U.S. military base that’s carrying out a major bombing campaign against terrorists all over the region be itself considered to support terrorism?”
The real reason for the feud, the official said, is that the Saudis and Emiratis envy Doha’s economic growth and expanding regional influence — influence the Saudis once held all to themselves. “They’re doing this also because they’re jealous,” the official said, “that Qatar and not them has been chosen to host the [soccer] World Cup in 2022.”
Indeed, terrorism may be one of the last things that comes to mind amid the frenetic pace of economic transformation evident on every street corner in Qatar’s capital. While the growing beachside metropolis of Doha is still small in comparison with rival Dubai in the UAE, gleaming new skyscrapers line the horizon. The Qatari capital is packed with new and expensively designed parks and opulent museums, all paid for by the global natural gas boom.
“Twenty-five percent of the world’s cranes — the world’s cranes — are here,” said a U.S. military official who lives in Doha. “They just set a record for the most earth-boring machines in the world operating simultaneously. Six. Just incredible. So, it is a nation being born.”
Regardless of the reasons for the blockade, what has been the result? Clearly intended to wreak economic, diplomatic and cultural chaos, it seems the Saudi-led effort has had just the opposite effect.
Among other food supplies cut-off at the onset of the embargo, milk, which had been nearly 100% imported, became non-existent. Perhaps nothing has signified the resilience of the Qatari people in the face of adversity more than their brief milk crisis. Empty dairy shelves and dry cereal became the norm immediately following the implementation of the embargo.
Within the first few months of the blockade, however, Qatar had flown in thousands of dairy cows and set up a state of the art milking facility a little more than 30 miles north of Doha, thus quenching the thirst of and providing fresh milk for their millions of residents.
Baladna Farms, like so many Qatari enterprises, thrived beyond all expectation. While the initial herd was flown in, three thousand more Holstein cows, bred in Arizona, California and Wisconsin, were shipped in by sea. Successful in their efforts to provide milk to everyone throughout Qatar, Power International Holding Group, who owns Baladna, has begun to export surplus milk.
Stop and think about the significance of these cows for a moment. An industry that literally didn’t exist in Qatar prior to the blockade is now flourishing and contributing to their GDP.
Another potential casualty of the diplomatic feud was the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar is scheduled to host the 32 team, month-long, worldwide sporting event. Construction was well underway on 9 new stadiums and improving 3 existing ones to meet FIFA standards. Prior to the blockade Qatar had been well ahead of schedule and right on budget with construction. With shipping lanes, air routes and land routes all impacted by the blockade, costs begin to sky-rocket and the schedule began to slip. In an amazing bit of foresight however, Qatar had required all contractors to include a variety of contingency plans to cover nearly any scenario. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy called for the contingency plans to be executed and within mere months, the stadiums were back on schedule and on or under budget.
In general, adversity tells a lot about people. Will they capitulate to circumstances or will they come together for the common good? In Qatar it has demonstrably been the latter. In a country of 2.7 million people where only 300,000 are natives, the potential exists for the diversity among the vast majority of the population to splinter. People of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, many of whom have only been in Qatar for a few years could be excused for having varying responses when threatened by disgruntled neighboring countries. Fear of the unknown might cause some to flee. Others could sew the seeds of discontent at their workplace or in their neighborhood.
In fact just the opposite occurred. Bolstered by the strong reforms in human rights and guaranteed minimum standards for housing, labor and education, these workers from all over the globe stepped up. Leaders in the defense industry call it a new found sovereignty. H.E. Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy says after the blockade, “Nationalism came back.”
Call it what you will, but one thing is clear. The unity of effort, the undying intent to persevere and succeed, regardless of the blockade status, has rallied together the nearly 3 million inhabitants of Qatar. If the intent of the countries that initiated the gulf crisis was to break the spirit of this nation, they have failed miserably.