Wealthy Qatar weathers siege, but personal and political costs grow

Qatar has been under a siege of sorts for the past month, but the immensely wealthy Persian Gulf nation is, so far, feeling little pain.
Qatar has been under a siege of sorts for the past month, but the immensely wealthy Persian Gulf nation is, so far, feeling little pain.PHOTO: REUTERS

DOHA, QATAR (NYTIMES) - A young business executive had to cancel a US$150,000 (S$206,000) family vacation in Saudi Arabia. Another woman grumbled that deliveries of designer fashions from the internet store Net-a-Porter were taking several days longer to arrive.

Others said they disliked the taste of the new Turkish milk in stores, preferring the old Saudi variety, but a tycoon offered a solution: He intends to fly 4,000 cows to Qatar, in what may be the biggest ever bovine airlift.

Qatar has been under a siege of sorts for the past month, but the immensely wealthy Persian Gulf nation is, so far, feeling little pain.

When four Arab nations blockaded Qatar's airspace and shipping channels last month in a bid to force it to drop its maverick foreign policy and shutter its influential TV station, Al-Jazeera, there was an initial burst of panic as some supermarket shelves emptied. But that quickly subsided, and since then the gas-rich nation has deployed its formidable treasury to keep its 300,000 people in the luxurious comfort to which they are accustomed.

A small thumb-shaped country that protrudes into the Persian Gulf, Qatar depends on Saudi Arabia for its only land border, which is now closed. Camels and migrant workers caught on the wrong side of the frontier when the crisis erupted have found themselves stranded.

Qatar Airways, whose flights have been forced to leave the region through Iranian airspace, is running up to eight extra cargo flights every day to bring fresh supplies of fruit, meat and vegetables to Doha, the capital. Executives have ordered new cargo planes, and at the company's vast, air-conditioned cargo facility at the airport in Doha on Sunday, employees said they anticipated little difficulty in handling the increased freight.

A US$7 billion port, which started operations in December, is expected to pick up the rest of the slack with shipments from new suppliers in Iran, India and elsewhere. Qatar's government is footing the bill.

"We can cover the financial aspect without even tapping into our investments," said Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed al-Thani, a member of the ruling clan and a senior communications official in the government. "It's not a problem." For the countries leading the blockade - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain - it illuminates the challenge of laying economic siege to the world's richest country per capita.

On June 22, the four countries issued a list of 13 demands against Qatar, including cutting its alleged ties to terrorist organisations, shutting down Al-Jazeera and closing a small Turkish military base. Qatar said the ultimatums amounted to an effective demand for surrendering its sovereignty.

The original deadline for meeting those demands was midnight on Sunday. But Qatar - which sits on a vast, lucrative gas field - indicated that it did not intend to give an inch. "We are prepared to face whatever consequences," the foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said in Rome on Saturday.

The four countries agreed to a request by Kuwait, which has been acting as a mediator in the dispute, to extend by 48 hours the deadline for Doha to comply, according to a joint statement published by the Saudi state news agency SPA.

Yet even if they appear to be winning the economic standoff so far, the Qataris are feeling the pinch in other ways. And the deepening crisis is having worrisome effects that are rippling across the gulf and battering political unity. Experts warn that the crisis could destabilize the broader region if it persists for months, or longer, as many fear.

The feud over Qatar has already extended beyond the gulf, sucking in Turkey, which is backing Doha, and Russia, which is trying to steer a middle course in the dispute. President Vladimir Putin of Russia said on Saturday that he had spoken with the leaders of Qatar and Bahrain in a bid to stimulate dialogue.

Normally, the United States might be counted on to help resolve the crisis, given that it considers itself a close ally of all the sparring countries. Qatar is home to a huge US air base with 10,000 US service personnel and warplanes that carry out daily attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

But US policy on the dispute has had an inconstant quality of late, with the State Department offering sharp criticism of the Saudi and Emirati demands - which it called the product of an old grudge - while President Donald Trump has sided firmly with the countries leading the blockade.

"We're having a dispute with Qatar," Trump said at a closed-door fundraiser in Washington on Wednesday, according to an audio recording leaked to the news site The Intercept. After mocking what he called the country's preferred pronunciation of its name, he said, "I prefer that they don't fund terrorism." Some US officials say Trump's policy is being driven by two advisers, Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who are firmly in the Saudi camp, and who see harsh punishment of Qatar as a warning to any country accused of indulging Islamists.

Qatar has been at odds for years with its neighbours over its stubbornly independent foreign policy and its sponsorship of Al-Jazeera, hugely popular across the Arabic-speaking world. The last spat, in 2014, led to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in protest for seven months. Qatar's rulers have deep tribal ties to Saudi Arabia and have spent much of the past two decades trying to shake loose from their neighbour's influence.

But this time, citizens on both sides have become mired in the fight, and it feels more bitter and personal.

Every night, people flock to a giant billboard in a Doha suburb to sign their names on a sketched image of the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. After going viral in the early days of the blockade, the image, drawn by a local artist, has become an icon of Qatari resistance, adorning skyscrapers, car windows and cellphones across the capital.

Such displays of nationalism are unusual in Qatar, but the artist, Ahmed Almaadheed, said he had been visited by Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a senior royal and a titan in the global art market, who offered her approval. One Qatari offered him US$5 million for the original image, he said, but it was not for sale. "It's a piece of history," he said.

On Friday night, men in white robes and black-clad women waited in line to be carried, one by one, on a cherry-picker so they could find a space to sign atop the 120-square-foot billboard.

Among them was Umm Hassan, a government employee, 40, on her third visit. "The people have become like one heart," she said.

But the crisis has also been a source of great sadness, she said. Her family has been shattered - a relative just died in Bahrain, and nobody could attend the funeral. Then there is her cousin, married to an Emirati, who recently had to send her 1-year-old daughter to the United Arab Emirates to live with her husband. Under the law in most Middle Eastern countries, a child inherits the nationality of the father, and after the siege started, the United Arab Emirates insisted that all of its citizens leave Qatar.

"The cost of this crisis is human," a distraught Hassan said. "It's between governments, but it's about people." For others, the crisis is playing out on social media. Some Saudis on Twitter have delighted in mocking the Turkish milk being drunk in Qatar, terming it "donkey milk", while young Qataris have turned to Snapchat for humorous, doggedly partisan takes on the crisis. Many place the blame squarely on Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's defence minister, who recently became the country's crown prince.

"Everyone's a politician now," said Hessa, an investment analyst with the Qatar Investment Authority, which manages much of the country's wealth in the West. "I feel this has been building for years, and I will never be able to forget it. I feel so naive. Why didn't I see it coming?" With the belligerents so heavily dug in, most analysts say the crisis will get worse before it improves.

In recent weeks, hackers, apparently on Qatar's side, have sent journalists covering the crisis copies of emails written by senior Emirati officials in an apparent attempt to discredit them.

Qatari officials, in turn, say they have been targeted by covert Emirati efforts to hurt the country's currency.

Thani, the Qatari communications official, said the crisis was likely to escalate, but he vowed that Qatar's adversaries would suffer just as much. "Whatever they lose, we lose," he said.

He added: "We have a drop in air transit; so do they. We have no problem in this continuing - internally, financially or politically."