To walk into the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket in Doha is like walking into the United Nations of vegetables. Stacked high are the oranges from South Africa, kiwis from Australia, apples from Italy. This diverse and colourful selection was not foreseeable a year ago. June 5 this week marks the first anniversary of the blockade on Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.
When the blockade was imposed, it came as a surprise to the small but wealthy Gulf country.
Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, rapidly leaving the nation geographically isolated. The blockading states drew up a list of thirteen demands, including that Qatar should cease its "support of terrorism", and should close the Al Jazeera news network. Qatar indicated almost immediately that it would not agree to any of the demands.
It was no coincidence that the blockade occurred shortly after Donald Trump's visit to Riyadh in mid-2017. During that visit, Trump described Qatar as a "high-level sponsor of terrorism". It has long been claimed that the government of Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is no secret that Qatar enjoys a close relationship with Iran.
The demand of the blockading countries that Al Jazeera should be closed is of great political significance. By refusing to close the network, Qatar is asserting its sovereignty — and also continuing to promote freedom of speech in a region where the media is mostly co-opted by the state and critical media routinely silenced. It can be argued that by making this demand, the blockading states have elevated the status of Al Jazeera and strengthened its reputation for fearless journalism.
Upon first hearing of the blockade, people scrambled to supermarkets in fear of Qatar running out of supplies. One year on, Qataris are thriving. How did this happen?
The fruit and vegetable selection is but one example of the tremendous resourcefulness Qatar has shown in overcoming a potential crisis. Per capita, Qatar is the richest country in the world. It derives most of this wealth from the sale of liquified natural gas. Yet until very recently Qatar depended almost entirely on its neighbours and trade partners for the supply of basic goods. When news of the blockade broke, Qatar realised it needed new friends.
As an astonishingly rich country, Qatar is well-oiled to survive and to buy itself out of the worst consequences of the crisis and, in some respects, emerge even stronger.
Qatar kicked off its economic self-sufficiency plan by dipping into its sovereign reserves and injecting $38-billion (~R506-billion) into the economy. The country became active in acquiring new trade partners, and further strengthened its existing ties with Turkey and Iran. Qatar has also made innovative advances in its agricultural sector and aims to become self-sufficient in producing food. To do so, it draws on the most sophisticated technology and expertise worldwide.
One of the deepest impacts of the blockade has been on freedom of movement. Qatari families have been separated from family members living elsewhere in the Gulf. Tourism has dropped, and Qatar Airways has suffered significant losses. But for the moment, Qatar is prepared to fly solo.
The blockade has reached a stalemate, with neither Qatar nor the blockading countries prepared to yield. In some ways, the blockade has become the new normal. It is clear that the blockading states will lose face if they end the blockade now. Whereas Kuwait seems willing to act as a mediator, no one expects concrete results soon. As the blockade continues, the group of powerful blockading states stand to lose most.
In the months to come, Qatar will find itself in stormy political waters and will have to navigate carefully. It has to balance its relations with Iran with its relations with the U.S. Since Iran has helped Qatar in its darkest hour, Qatar is unlikely to turn its back on Iran. Qatar would further have to deal with the potential fallout should it proceed with acquiring a Russian-made missile defence system, an acquisition which would further anger Saudi Arabia.
Over the past weeks, commentators have stated that the lesson from the siege on Qatar is that blockades in the Middle East simply do not work. A comparison was made with the ongoing siege on Gaza. As an astonishingly rich country, Qatar is well-oiled to survive and to buy itself out of the worst consequences of the crisis and, in some respects, emerge even stronger.
The situation in Gaza, on the other hand, is truly desperate — as it is depleted of resources, deprived of self-government and lacks even the smallest control over its own fate.
But this does not diminish Qatar's achievements. The blockade of Qatar, though unique in many ways, serves as an example of how, when handed lemons, a state can make lemonade.
Mia Swart is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and research director of the Democracy and Governance unit at the HSRC in South Africa.