The Enigma That Is Qatar
© Photo: National Geographic

It is not easy to pigeon-hole Qatar, a stand-alone Middle Eastern state in more ways than one − geographically, politically, economically, influentially.  Itself a small peninsula projecting into the Persian Gulf from the vast Arabian Peninsula, Qatar clearly aspires to become a major player in the region and beyond.  In pursuit of this objective, its tactics have sometimes puzzled, sometimes infuriated, its neighbours. But then, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – and certainly number one on a per capita basis – Qatar has reckoned for a long time that it could afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others thought. 

For example, Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists − from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters − while also offering itself as a key US ally, was rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wanted to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody. “We don’t do enemies,” Qatar’s one-time foreign minister is reported to have said:  “we talk to everyone.”  And talk they certainly did through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera world-wide media network.

But Qatar’s wayward policies, especially with regard to Islamist groups, had long infuriated its neighbouring Arab states, and back in January 2014 − perhaps influenced by the fact that Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year − Gulf states suddenly pressured Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups, not to interfere in the affairs of other Gulf states, and to cooperate on regional issues.

When the Qatari government flatly refused to comply, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations.  The inexperienced Al-Thani was unable to withstand the pressure.  In April, at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, his arm was twisted, and the Qataris signed an undertaking known as the Riyadh agreement whose terms, although never made public, were believed to be virtually the same as those they had refused to sign a few weeks earlier.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly took away a very different view of what had been agreed than the Qataris. They expected Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. They believed that Qatar had agreed to remove, or at least reduce, the appearance of Islamists on Al Jazeera and other Qatari media, and especially to eliminate the constant Muslim Brotherhood-based criticism of Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They also expected Qatar to silence the provocative Islamist figures that dominated its media platforms.

They were soon to find that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations, but simply continued its support of Islamist extremists intent on undermining the stability of the region. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action.  On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. In addition they suspended all land, air and sea traffic, virtually imposing a trade blockade on the Gulf state.

This bombshell initiative had been preceded by the visit of US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia on 20 May 2017 for a meeting with some 50 leaders of the Arab world.  On the subject of Islamist extremism he had been characteristically blunt.  “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists…Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. And drive them out of this Earth.”

So for some eight months Qatar has been under siege,  Although most major trade routes into and out of the country have been closed off, Qatar has been sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods sent in by Iran and Turkey.  As for exports, Qatar is the largest global exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and this has been maintained.  As a result, the country seems to be weathering the blockade and to be reasonably well placed to sustain itself for some time ahead.

In fact in 2017 Qatar’s economy showed one of the fastest growth rates in the region. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 1.9 percent during the third quarter of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016. Its economy is still growing at 2.5 percent, with the building and construction sector growing by 15 percent – a phenomenon not unconnected with government spending on infrastructure development and facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Around which issue controversy has raged since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the hosting rights. Just how the tiny Arab emirate managed to win this glittering prize remains an open question.  Accusations of bribery on a massive scale have persisted, and on 22 February 2018 the journal Goal contained reports that the 2022 hosting rights might be pulled from Qatar on two grounds – bribery and political instability.

The main charge leveled at Qatar in the June 2017 débacle was that it had failed to fulfill the undertakings it entered into in 2014.  “We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told reporters, “to its hostile media, and to interference in affairs of other countries.”

Qatar refused to comply with an initial list of 13 demands, and has since been told by its neighbors that they want it to accept six broad principles on combating extremism and terrorism such as its support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and its cooperation with Iran. Shi’ite Iran is, of course, the main rival of Sunni Saudi Arabia in both the religious and the political arenas. There has been little meeting of minds on these matters either.

Qatar continues on its capricious way regardless.  While continuing to inject vast sums into Hamas’s coffers, it has recently been wooing US Jewish American leading figures by way of meetings with the Emir and funded trips to the Gulf state.  These overtures, to which some distinguished individuals have succumbed, sit uneasily alongside Israel’s fragile, developing, and vitally important relationship with the Sunni Arab world which initiated the blockade of Qatar in the first place.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.  Qatar is close to meriting the same epithet.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."