Qatar enters third year of crisis but no lessons learnt

Doha’s few regional allies are facing their own problems and old Islamist allies have effectively been knocked on their back.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Backpedalling. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani during the emergency Arab summit in Mecca, May 30.  (AP)
Backpedalling. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani during the emergency Arab summit in Mecca, May 30. (AP)

The way Qatar is dealing with a regional dispute that has left it weakened and isolated from its Arab neighbours is beyond strange. As Doha loses regional influence and sees its relationships with Arab countries dwindle, it continues to insist that all is well that ends well.

Of course, this is largely because Doha has weathered the crisis by becoming economically self-sufficient, particularly through its dairy and fresh poultry products. Does an abundance of cows, chickens and hydroponic tomatoes really mean that the tiny Gulf emirate has emerged from a 2-year boycott victorious? Of course not, unless it is believed that a country needs only food to thrive and meet the needs of its people.

The reality is that Qatar’s economy has taken a turn for the worse, with its real estate and retail sectors reeling from the effects of the boycott. Reports from inside Doha say shopping malls and hotels have been nearly abandoned in the absence of wealthy tourists from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Qatar’s housing market also remains depressed because of a supply glut ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup that is to be hosted there. To stimulate the gas-rich country’s economy last October, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani issued a new law allowing foreigners to own property in the country.

Doha’s economic woes do not stop there. Qatar Airways, once touted as one of the fastest growing carriers in aviation history, reported its second consecutive annual loss in March. The company’s troubles began when it was barred from entering the boycotting countries’ airspace, forcing it to reroute many flights at a high cost.

Still, Doha insists that it has emerged stronger than ever from its crisis. Isn’t that curious?

Qatar’s misinformation strategy has not been particularly effective but it seems determined to stick to the famous propaganda law often attributed to Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”

In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the illusory truth effect: People tend to believe statements to be true if they are told them repeatedly.

To believe or not to believe is not the question. What is at stake is the future of a whole country and population that has been suffering from two plagues: First, the Qatari state’s policies, which are informed by desperate leaders who refuse to learn from mistakes and, second, a systematic campaign to deepen division between families, tribes and peoples with common roots in culture and history.

Sure, Doha may continue its costly public relations campaign in the United States, Europe and elsewhere to combat the accusations of its rivals but this will in no way help resolve its dispute with Arab neighbours or help it strengthen its standing after losing influence in Syria, Libya, Sudan and Egypt, where it mistakenly backed failed or failing Islamist groups.

Indeed, Qatar can continue tossing money out the window. It does have plenty of that to spare — although not thanks to the wisdom or good governance of its leaders but to the country’s huge gas reserves. None of that money will buy Doha friends or allies in the Arab region, especially following its rapprochement with Tehran and its obstinate efforts to resuscitate Islamist groups in the region.

Unlike Doha, other Arab countries cannot afford to see their governments fail or to conceal domestic problems, whether political, economic or social, through quasi-religious camouflage. Qatar should have learnt this lesson long ago, when people in Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Egypt resisted its sponsored drive to install political Islam in their countries. These people yearned for justice, freedom, democracy and dignity, not Doha’s Islamist vision.

Somehow, Qatar has not learnt this lesson. Even today, Doha feverishly tries to revive political Islam in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Sudan. Qatar’s insistence on meddling in the affairs of other countries, including those striving for freedom and democracy, puts it on the wrong side of history — the side of autocracy, oppression, censorship, bribery and enslavement, all of which are defining elements of Qatar’s regime.

Just as foolish as thinking it can pull the Arab world back into religious fundamentalism is Qatar’s belief that rapprochement with Iran is an effective strategy for the future. The closer Qatar edges towards Tehran, the further it moves away from the Arab world and the more isolated it becomes.

Arab countries that are boycotting Qatar would consider Doha’s rapprochement with their arch-rival to be further confirmation that Doha is acting with hostility and in bad faith. This was again made clear during the recent Mecca summits, when Qatar expressed reservations with the meetings’ unified stance against Tehran.

Two years into the crisis, Doha’s house of cards is crumbling. Its few regional allies — Turkey and Iran — are facing their own problems, while old Islamist allies such as the Muslim Brotherhood have effectively been knocked on their back.

As such, it won’t be long before the winds of change blow the last card from Doha’s hands. When this happens, no one will go to the rescue of a regime that played one party against another, antagonised its neighbours and maintained its rule by fanning the flames of regional division and fear.