Doha’s isolation rings loud, fewer options available

Qatar’s isolation is approaching the 1-year mark and its economy is reeling.
Sunday 18/03/2018
A black-and-white depiction of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani that was put up by authorities to attract signatures and comments from residents is seen in Doha.(AP)
Stubborn realities. A black-and-white depiction of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani that was put up by authorities to attract signatures and comments from residents is seen in Doha.(AP)

Among the gleaming skyscrapers that make up Doha’s skyline, one building stands out. It is the darkened shadow of Dubai Towers, which would, at 91 storeys, be the city’s tallest building when completed. Except that the rift between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt means that may never happen.

Doha is quieter than it’s been in decades. Driving through Doha’s streets to reach the Al Jazeera Media Cafe in the city’s northern suburbs, there are few signs of life. Just a single table at the television network-affiliated eatery is occupied. At the dozens of surrounding cafes, the only people visible are valet attendees and golf cart drivers awaiting customers who may not appear.

Qatar’s isolation is approaching the 1-year mark and its economy is reeling. The ruling al-Thani family has fewer options than before to successfully navigate a positive end to the Gulf crisis.

Qatar’s problems are rooted in the Syrian conflict. Jabhat al-Nusra, the armed opposition force Qatar initially supported, morphed into an al-Qaeda affiliate. That was when Doha’s backing of the rebel group became anathema for Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours.

If Qatar’s support for al-Nusra triggered the crisis, it is not the chief bone of contention between the gas-rich petrostate and its neighbours. The Gulf countries’ main problem with Qatar is its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the roots of which go back decades. When survivors of the failed 1982 Brotherhood uprising in Hama fled Syria, many headed for Qatar. There they found jobs as teachers and in the civil service. A lasting relationship was forged and it has, arguably, led to this point today.

For Syrians, the Muslim Brotherhood is a bit like maqdous, either dearly loved or vehemently loathed. During the early stages of the Syrian war, Qatar opened the door to the Muslim Brotherhood to enable it to establish a foothold in Syrian opposition politics.

“The Brotherhood,” Foreign Policy magazine reported in 2013, “has successfully opposed attempts to outline how the transitional period will be managed — an ambiguity the group no doubt hopes it will be able to exploit to seize a leadership role after Assad’s fall.”

The magazine further noted that “Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned satellite behemoth, has polished the image of [Brotherhood-affiliated] anti-regime Islamists in its coverage.”

The tide of the Syria war has, of course, turned in favour of the Assad regime but the Muslim Brotherhood endures with the help of Qatar and Turkey and awaits another chance.

Analysts say the Gulf crisis could end just as abruptly as it started but, given that relations have fallen into a deep-rooted stasis, that’s an unlikely scenario. Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with its grand ambitions for development and glasnost at home and it has stated that the Qatar crisis is an afterthought. On the home front, Qatar’s economy is in the doldrums and, despite huge injections of capital, in need of attention. Then there’s the 2022 FIFA World Cup to plan for and manage.

For sure, it may be remarkable that this small country has weathered the crisis as well as it has. It can call on entrenched ties with regional powers such as Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Iran but aircraft deals with the United States, hastily arranged imports from Turkey and a friendship of convenience with Tehran are not policies that will allow Qatar to maintain, or even to regain, the status it formerly enjoyed. Such is the depth of the fissures running through the broader Middle East, Europe and Washington, that any country that nominally has the influence to help end the Gulf crisis is otherwise occupied.

The options available to the leaders sitting in the quietest city in the Gulf are few. Qatar and its neighbours could be in for a long winter yet.

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