Qatar & The Quartet: what was the crisis about and why has it ended now? By Omar Khan
If there are two words that never come to mind when thinking about the Middle East, they are solidarity and stability. On 5th January 2021, a “solidarity and stability” agreement was signed between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council ending the nearly four-year-long blockade spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, collectively dubbed “The Quartet”. But why was there a diplomatic crisis in the first place? What motivated leaders to end it now? And how will its legacy affect the region?
Qatar has always had a mind of its own, and as we’ve seen, Saudi Arabia does not respond well to those refusing to get in line. Their quiet tension centred on the cordial Tehran-Doha relationship and the Qatari state’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group seen as an existential threat to the absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Then everything erupted ten years ago during the Arab Spring when the polarisation would later trigger an embargo: Saudi Arabia supported the authoritarian regimes, but Qatar backed the revolutionaries.
The Quartet severed ties with Qatar on 5th June 2017, closing access to airspace and shipping routes. The reason? Saudi Arabia accused the Qataris of funding terrorist organisations, which is the pot calling the kettle black. The real reason then? Seven years of diverging policies on Syria, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan and almost everything else, alongside problematic intra-Gulf relations. A harsh embargo was launched to pressure the small emirate into agreeing to the Quartet’s demands, including shutting down Al Jazeera and curbing friendly ties with Iran. Despite the initial shock to the move, one important ally of Saudi Arabia’s gave their all-important blessing for the blockade to continue: US President Donald Trump. Needless to say, Trump’s support of Riyadh distressed Western leaders and could have led to an unnecessary escalation – however, once his advisors reminded the president that Qatar is practically their most important ally in the War on Terror, considering they host the largest US military base at al-Ulmeid and can directly communicate with the Taliban, the US tentatively offered to mediate. With Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s meteoric rise to power around the same time, peace was taken off the table with the Saudi heir even suggesting it could last as long as the 60-year embargo on Cuba.
So how did Qatar fare? Generally better than expected, though being the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (28% of global total) helped soften the blow. Initially, food supplies were under threat, but Doha’s allies in Turkey and Iran helped supplement the loss – Qatar even imported 10,000 cows to secure milk supply. Despite this, 60% of Qatar’s imports before the embargo went through the nations now blockading it. Therefore, some economic pain was inevitable, but the opening of the deep water, £5.8 million Hamad Port (capable of hosting much larger cargo ships) and reforms to boost investment (e.g. special economic zones, higher foreign ownership limits) helped to increase the emirate’s growth rate from 1.6% (2017) to 2.4% (2018) to 3.1% (2019), meaning that life for Qatari nationals did not change too much.
However, Qatari nationals make up less than a fifth of the Qatari population, and life for the mainly Asian migrant workers was nowhere near as secure. Already persevering under an exploitative and ruthless system, migrant workers predominantly from Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka felt the blockade's squeeze. As businesses struggled, such as in the manufacturing sector, lay-offs were an easy painkiller. Considering the abhorrent prevalence of wage abuse (unjustified delays, deductions and months without pay), laid-off workers were effectively abandoned by the state. As one anonymous Indian worker said: “No money, how can we stay here?” Though Qatar has made some improvements recently, most notably the reform of the controversial kafala system in late 2020, allowing workers to change jobs without their employer’s permission, the plague of debt bondage and the lack of state resources dedicated to migrant workers (e.g. no investigation into the hundreds of migrant deaths each year) still makes life in one of the world’s richest nations tough. Hopefully, the end to the blockade can motivate the emirate to reassess their system.
But why has the embargo ended now, and what does everybody get out of it? The peace deal was pushed for by Saudi Arabia soon after Trump lost the presidential election in November as an attempt to gain some goodwill with the incoming Biden administration which has been heavily critical of the kingdom’s abysmal human rights record including the murders of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and civilians in Yemen, as well as the arrest of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul in 2020. Recognising that his ally in Washington was headed out, bin Salman pressured the Quartet to come to an arrangement. Though Kuwaiti mediation (acting as a tribute to the late emir al-Sabah) deserves some credit, it was ultimately the setting aside of pride that led to bin Salman and Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani shaking hands this year. Despite the rhetoric of brotherly unity and the notion, as Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Thani put it, of all states being “winners”, it was really Qatar that came out on top. The blockade was lifted without conceding to practically any of the Quartet’s demands with Sheikh Mohammad carefully noting that “there is no effect on our relationship with any other country”, including Iran and Turkey.
So where does the Gulf go from here? The UAE has been the most reluctant to agree to this détente as they view the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy as direct threats to their objectives. Emirati foreign minister Anwar Gargash noted that the “crisis will leave issues of trust”, saying that Abu Dhabi will be asking the question “Is Turkey’s presence in the Gulf going to be permanent?” For Egypt, Palestine is what worries them – Cairo sees itself as the main mediator in the region, but Qatar’s role in establishing dialogue between Hamas and Fatah threatens that. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s meeting with Sheikh Tamim raised eyebrows in Egypt who are also tensely aware of the emirate’s close relationship with Turkey which hosts the Muslim Brotherhood (primary opposition to President Abdel el-Sisi) and is increasing its role in Libya.
Overall, relations between the desert nations will be frosty at best. Still, a coronavirus pandemic and global economic downturn should hopefully motivate leaders to avoid a damaging escalation, or at least delay it.