Middle East

Deadlock as Qatar embargo marks 3-year anniversary

A bitter feud between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance drags into a fourth year on Friday with no end in sight.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia led its Gulf allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt, to cut all ties with Qatar, accusing it of backing radical Islamist movements and Iran — a charge denied by Doha.

There were indications of an imminent thaw around the turn of the year, but all overtures have so far come to nothing.

Here is a recap:

Ultimatum to Doha

On May 24, 2017, a statement attributed to Qatar’s ruler appears on the state news agency’s website, apparently endorsing Islamist movements and criticizing US President Donald Trump.

Qatar says the site has been hacked and that the statement is fake, but it is picked up and published in regional media.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia and its allies abruptly cut all air links, land crossings, direct shipping and diplomatic ties with their neighbor.

Other countries impose their own, lesser sanctions.

A day later, Trump wades in and tweets that during his recent visit to the region a number of Middle East leaders “pointed to Qatar” for allegedly supporting “Radical Ideology”.

Later that month, the Saudi-led coalition issues 13 sweeping demands including the closure of Doha-based Al-Jazeera news network and the shuttering of a Turkish military base in return for lifting their boycott.

They also demand Doha curb its relations with Riyadh’s arch-rival, Iran.

Qatar rejects the demands, calling them “unrealistic” and “not actionable”.

The schism complicates regional travel, divides families and raises costs faced by Qatari businesses.

The anti-Doha alliance doubles down, issuing in late July 2017 a list of 18 allegedly extremist individuals and entities, while demanding Qatar takes action against them. It later expands the list to 90 names.

Game of two halves

In August 2017, satellite channel beoutQ begins broadcasting events, including top-flight football, to Saudi audiences.

Qatar-based sporting broadcaster BeIN accuses Saudi of pirating its production. BeIN’s efforts to sanction Saudi Arabia are the subject of an ongoing legal dispute.

Throughout 2018, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates trade accusations over access to airspace, in a row that ends up at the International Court of Justice.

The following year sees the UAE host the Asian Cup soccer tournament. Qatar wins, but the stands are empty of the country’s fans who have been barred from entering the UAE. One British attendee wearing Qatari colors is arrested.

Trump strikes a more conciliatory tone when Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, visits Washington in April 2019, calling him “a friend”.

Back on the football field, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain reverse a decision to boycott a regional tournament in Qatar, with Bahrain going on to lift the trophy on December 8, 2019.

Just two years before, the same nations had refused to play another edition of the tournament in Qatar until it was moved to neutral Kuwait, so the teams’ presence raises hopes of imminent reconciliation.

As the tournament gets underway, Qatar’s foreign minister says there has been “some progress” in talks with Saudi Arabia.

More details emerge of mediation efforts by neutral Gulf nations Kuwait and Oman.

‘Doubts’ over GCC

But in December 2019, Qatar’s emir declines an invitation by Saudi Arabia to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, sending then-prime minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani instead.

In February 2020, Qatar’s foreign minister reveals that talks with Saudi Arabia were suspended a month earlier, but says Doha “remains open if there are any benign efforts to resolve the issue”.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the rift, a flurry of posts aimed at Qatar surface on social media, including claims it is considering quitting the Gulf Cooperation Council.

On May 28, Qatar’s foreign ministry denies the claims to AFP, but warns that the people of the region are “doubting” the bloc because of its failure to remedy the diplomatic crisis.


Image: US President Donald Trump meeting with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the White House on July 9, 2019. (AFP/File / Nicholas Kamm)

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