A year after cows were dropping from the skies above Qatar, the country is still suffering a blockade imposed by its Gulf neighbours. Then, the tiny emirate was left with no milk on its shelves, and resorted to flying in thousands of cows, but it has not buckled under the pressure in the 12 months since. How exactly is Qatar surviving, and why is this Gulf dispute proving so intractable?
Last June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (known as the Arab Quartet), imposed a land, air and sea blockade on Qatar. They issued a 13-point ultimatum, stating all demands had to be addressed before normal relations could resume. The besieged emirate refused; no imports or exports have passed between the actors since this diplomatic crisis began.
Many commentators did not believe Qatar had the economic resilience to withstand the consequences, but they have been proved wrong. This is partly due to the fact that the emirate had already begun diversifying its economy before the blockade with other sources of income, such as its gigantic sovereign wealth fund.
This move reduced its oil dependency to just 61% of GDP. The country has subsequently weathered the storm far better than its naysayers expected, including the IMF, which forecasts a moderate acceleration in economic growth from 2.4% in 2017 to a predicted 2.6% this year.
It has also helped that America chose not to impose sanctions. Many thought President Trump might do so after he publicly endorsed the Quartet’s decision, tweeting “perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”.
His decision owes a lot to the fact that the US has a significant military presence in Doha, including the Al Udeid air base. This is America’s largest military base in the Middle East, with around 11,000 troops stationed there. The US does not want to jeopardize this at a time when relations with its regional nemesis Iran are souring. This has benefited Qatar as it has not lost its 6th largest trading partner, with whom they do $6bn of trade each year.
But the main factor behind Qatar’s survival in the crucial early stage is how Iran and Turkey swiftly filled the shoes of its former Gulf partners. Qatari supermarkets were running out of food after the blockade was imposed, as 40% came by road via Saudi Arabia. Ankara provided dairy and meat whilst Tehran was among the countries flying in cows. Later that year, the three signed a transportation agreement which facilitated and boosted trilateral trade. The ruling al-Thani family was essentially saying “If Saudi et al. don’t want to trade anymore, we’ll just do it with someone else”.
The blockade has not brought Qatar to its knees as intended. So why, after one fruitless year, is nobody at the negotiating table to sort the mess out?
For the besieged Qataris, the reason is simple: they don’t have to comply with the 13 demands because they believe they can continue to survive quite happily.
The Quartet’s terms were tough, among them were the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran, surrendering Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas members (to whom Qatar promised protection), and shutting down al-Jazeera TV. This would be humiliating for the Gulf state, which wears its resistance to the all-absorbing Saudi sphere of influence as a badge of honour.
For the Arab Quartet, it is also a matter of pride – they do not want the world to see that their combined might could not out-muscle the 164th largest country in the world. Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of the Arab Sunni world, cannot afford a policy failure.
Far better, then, for the Quartet to dig in its heels. Fudging their original strident demands would look weak, so their only option is to keep blockading even if it appears Qatar is doing better than just surviving. And the cows? There’s now 14,000 of them and the country is self-sufficient in milk.