My life and adventures in Qatar, my love of Yemen and more...
Sunday, 3 June 2018
Gulf Crisis One year on
One year ago, on 5th June 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, closing land borders, shipping routes and air space, effectively cutting the country off from established supplies of goods and services. Families were split apart, businesses destroyed and the Gulf Co-operation Council (formed in 1981), once a beacon of stability for the region, plunged into crisis.
Despite the fact that Qatar suffered a 40% drop in imports immediately following the blockade, it quickly secured new supplies from countries such as Turkey, Iran and India and new shipping routes via Oman.
In the meantime the country accelerated its drive towards self sufficiency in food production and now satisfies 92% of demand for milk from local suppliers. In addition, according to local Arabic newspaper Arrayah, Qatar now produces 98% of its need for fresh poultry, 80% fish, 80% dates and 24% of its vegetable needs.
I have noticed the change in the contents of the shelves in supermarkets across Qatar over the last year, from the days immediately following the start of the crisis, when we all stood in mutual confusion in the dairy aisle trying to understand what "sut" was (Turkish for milk).....
.......to today being spoiled for a choice of new local produce, proudly displaying their Qatari branding. Brands such as Baladna, Rawa, Dandy and Ghadeer have rapidly stepped up to expand production after the closure of the Saudi land border cut off all supplies of established brand Almarai.
Baladna in particular has come from a little known farm that began life rearing sheep in 2013, to a huge dairy operation 50kms north of Doha (I passed it on my recent cycling trip) spread across 2.6 million square metres with 20,000 heads of cattle producing milk, yoghurt, cheese and meat. It is now also expanding into poultry and egg production.
The operation is open to visitors alongside a park with activities for kids, a small zoo and a restaurant selling the food produced on site. All these efforts have resulted in a 300 percent rise in the sale of Qatari products in the first quarter of 2018 compared to 2017.
A professor of economy at St Mary's college of California, Jack Rasmus, has praised Qatar for its swift adjustment to the crisis, believing that the blockade "wont have much effect on the economy" in the long run. Indeed, in February the ratings agency Fitch said about Qatar "there are signs of broader economic resilience."
The success of the self-sufficiency drive has emboldened Qatar to make an announcement a few days ago that all traders should stop dealing in any products imported from the four countries involved. Some products from these countries had found their way back to the shelves via third party countries but the ban of these products will now be monitored by the Economy Ministry.
In other areas, its not such good news. In April, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-bakr admitted that the airline had made a "substantial" loss over the last financial year due to the crisis, with many of its routes cancelled by the participating countries, and increases on flying times to other destinations due to airspace restrictions.
There have also been numerous claims and counterclaims of airspace violations on all sides, escalating tensions further. To try to claw back the losses, Qatar Airways are continuing to expand into other routes and partnerships, recently acquiring a stake in Italian airline Meridiana which will shortly become Italy's national carrier.
Politically, there seems to be an impasse, with the Bahraini Foreign Minister forecasting no resolution to the crisis in sight. Indeed, the much anticipated US-Gulf summit planned for 3rd April was postponed until September this year. It was also reported that there has been much lobbying behind the scenes by the UAE in particular to convince the US to support the blockade.
This includes a report by the BBC that a businessman with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of defence contracts with the UAE, Elliott Broidy, who also happened to be a Trump fundraiser, tried to persuade the US President to sack Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, because he wasn't supportive of the UAE position.
The World Cup also features heavily in the crisis with the four countries apparently offering to lift the blockade if Qatar gives up its right to host the competition. But its not just the 2022 World Cup at stake. In March this year, the Saudi Sports Authority Chairman appeared to threaten to withdraw support for Morocco's bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, if it continued its 'neutral' stance on the crisis, saying "to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us."
But perhaps the most troubling development in recent days comes from a threat made by King Salman in a letter to Emanuel Macron relating to Qatar's deal to purchase a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system. In the letter, obtained by French newspaper 'Le Monde', the Saudi Kings says "the Kingdom would be ready to take all the necessary measures to eliminate this defence system, including military action".
This comes on the back of statements made by Saudi Foreign Minister in April, that without US backing, Qatar would fall within a week. Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir made the statement following similar comments from President Trump during his Whitehouse meeting with French President Macron, when discussing support from Gulf countries in Syria. Trump said there were some countries in the area.. "some of which are immensely wealthy, would not be there except for the United States, and to a lesser extent France" and they "wouldn't last a week without US protection".
As Qataris enter the third week of Ramadan, many of them very personally affected by the year long crisis, they have mixed feelings about the events of the last year. Sadness at the loss of relations with their gulf brothers and sisters but great pride in their country's enduring strength and resilience to not only survive the last 12 months, but to thrive.
The UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs recently stated that "Qatar is arranging celebrations to mark a year of solitude and confusion". As a resident of Qatar over this last 12 months, that is not a description I recognise.