• Flynn Devine

Understanding the Qatari Blockade

Ending 3 years of hostility and division in the Gulf region, a blockade against Qatar has been lifted by its neighbours. But why did this blockade exist in the first place? Well, this 3 Minute Briefing attempts to explain some of the layers involved in this large and complex issue.



The Issue


January 2021 began with a big shift in Middle Eastern politics.


Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt lifted a blockade which they had imposed on Qatar in 2017.


This was an economic and diplomatic blockade, halting relations between these nations by land, air and sea. The lifting of this political barrier is a huge step towards ending one of the largest crises in the region's recent history, but this doesn't mean all contention is over.



The History


This cutting of ties came in June 2017, when four of Qatar's Gulf neighbours announced a blockade against the nation, that would only be lifted if it agreed to a 13 point list of demands. Within this ambitious ultimatum there was some dramatic requests, such as drastically reducing their relationships with Iran, denouncing The Muslim Brotherhood and closing the state-run news outlet, Al-Jazeera.


Relations between the Gulf states, lead by Saudi Arabia, and Iran have been tense for years. Although they adhere to different Islamic sects, Iran having a Shia majority and Saudi a mostly Sunni population, this is not a sectarian division as much Western media discourse often portrays. This is a battle for dominance over the Arab World.


Saudi Arabia claims Islamic authority, largely due to its being the birth place of the Religion and home to Mecca and Medina, two of Islam's most important cities. However, following the Iranian revolution of 1979 an opposition to Saudi religious hegemony was born.


Qatar, although generally attempting to have relationships with all sides, has close ties with Iran, which these gulf nations fear gives Iran influence in the region. Therefore, this blockade is in many aspects part of a proxy play in a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


The Muslim Brotherhood, an international movement, whose primary goal is an Islamic revival through Muslim led governments, is seen by Saudi Arabia and her allies as a threat for exactly the same reasons. Qatar has long supported the group and harbours members sought by other nations. Losing Qatar as an ally would somewhat weaken the Brotherhood and thus their 'threat' to the blockading parties.


The closure of Al-Jazeera is caused by exactly the same power fears. The News outlet has been an avid critic of Saudi Arabia, especially on their record of poor Human Rights and freedom of speech, and has often positively reported on uprisings and anti-government movements. Qatar funds the outlet and promotes a general 'don't bite the hand that feeds you' policy, therefore this outspoken outlet is a critic of many, but often strays from Qatari contention.



The International Dimension


This blockade ending signifies many things.


Among many conclusions, it demonstrates the US is not as fanatic an ally of Saudi Arabia as the Monarchy might have originally thought: the US did not blindly support the blockade, which would have gone a long way in the international standing. This is unsurprising considering Qatar hosts a very strategically important base for the US 'Central Command' (CENTCOM) and thus wanted to keep its hands reasonably clean.


We also see that a blockade against a wealthy and well-connected nation will cause inconvenience, but seemingly no long lasting damage. If anything, this blockade was counter-productive as it simply pushed Qatar further into the arms of Iran and Turkey, deepening the divide between all these nations. This is important as when 'soft' politics fails, 'hard' politics sometimes follows.


Importantly, this failed blockade demonstrates Qatar is an important player in the region and will not simply bend to Saudi Arabia's demands. This small country has been known to 'hit above its weight' and this proves it can be up for a fight.



Ongoing


This blockade should not be viewed as a singular event, but part of an ongoing struggle for power in the Middle East and beyond. This cold war is extremely important, as it largely influences the foreign policy of these nations, especially around their intervention in conflicts, like Syria.


The end of this blockade demonstrates Qatar is not so easily bossed around and their, sometimes 'unconventional', soft power politics are favouring them significantly. Although part of a bigger battle this has given Qatar some newly demonstrated influence, possibly shaping the region in the near future.


Although the blockade has been lifted, this cold war for supremacy is far from over.