In the face of two nations seeking to redefine political power in the Middle East, small Qatar has proven resilient and resisted their advances, writes Juan Cole in The Nation.
On June 5, 2017, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar, including ending diplomatic relationships with Iran and Turkey, shutting down alleged support operations for populist parties and terrorist groups in Middle Eastern countries, and shuttering Al Jazeera news, which is headquartered in Qatar.
If their demands were not agreed to in 10 days, the leaders threatened, they would impose an immediate land and air blockade of Qatar.
Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah recently reported concerns from around this time that the two aggressors were mobilizing troops and organizing sympathetic, and potentially rebellious, clans near the Qatari border.
As Cole points out, this was one step in their broader mission to “remake the Middle East.”
Outlining their past and current subversive activities in the region, he writes, “They are waging a bloody and destructive war in Yemen; they have supported militant fundamentalists in Syria; they tried to force the prime minister of Lebanon to resign; and they colluded with the Egyptian officer corps to make a coup and bring the Arab Spring youth protesters to heel.”
Qatar Pushes Back
However, despite the intimidation employed against them, the Qataris refused the demands and has endured the blockade – a particularly painful situation given the fact that their only land border is shared with Saudi Arabia.
Prior to the blockade, Qatar had imported most of its food via the land route through Saudi Arabia. Now they had to organize a new route for imports.
First though, came the immediate threat of Saudi/UAE invasion.
Cole explains that the Qataris addressed the initial crisis by strengthening military ties with Turkey, discouraging direct intervention in their affairs.
Next, they turned their attention to the trade routes.
By working out an agreement with Iran, the Qataris organized air and sea routes through Iran, Iraq and Turkey for a continuous flow of goods.
The result has been a success, with the blockade showing little to no overall impact, apart from making importation slightly more expensive.
Qatari leaders then proceeded to receive a ruling by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization against Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt “over their attempt to close their air space arbitrarily despite being signatories of the International Air Services Transit Agreement.”
Strategic Alliance With U.S. Bolstered
In addition to these efforts, Qatar has also sought to improve ties with the United States.
Cole writes that, despite initial hostility from President Trump, the Qataris have since found more amenable ears in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Ties between the two countries through oil and strategic defense have been strengthened since the blockade began, and relations, though never especially soured, seem to be warming.
“At the end of January, Tillerson and Mattis attended a Qatar-US strategic dialogue in which both heaped fulsome praise on Qatar as an economic and security partner for the United States.”
In sum, Cole writes, Qatar has ultimately proven successful in resisting the control of UAE and the Saudis.
However, he also notes that this does not mean the rivalry will end soon.
Cole explains that the situation was so extreme that it has likely permanently altered the dynamics of the region.
To read Cole’s full account of what happened in Qatar, read more here: David and Goliath: How Qatar Defeated the Saudi and UAE Annexation Plot