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Today (4 December) it was announced that the Saudi Arabian government is close to agreeing to lift its blockade against Qatar. Having stood firm against Saudi aggression and disinformation, the Qataris will congratulate themselves on having successfully defeated the bully boy tactics of their much larger neighbour, writes Emily Barley.
Jared Kushner, senior advisor and son-in-law to US President Trump, reportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia with a team of envoys early this week. His brief was to bring an end to the blockade of Qatar, in a last push for foreign policy wins in the President’s final days in office. It seems that this move was enough to bring Saudi Arabia and the other blockaders into line, and get the deal mediated by Kuwait over the line.
Qatar has weathered the blockade led by its neighbours for over three years, drawing on its gas and oil derived wealth and nimble policy making to stand up to the bully-boy tactics of a coalition of Gulf states led by the Saudis.
In June 2017, a group of Middle Eastern countries – including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and others – imposed a blockade on Qatar. This involved banning their citizens from travelling to or living in the country, expelling Qatari nationals, closing their air space to Qatari aircraft, and closing the country’s only land border.
The group’s demands ranged from shutting down Doha-based news network Al Jazeera to ending military cooperation with Turkey. Perhaps most tellingly, they also demanded Qatar align with the other Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically.
When state-backed newspapers in Saudi Arabia suggested that the country might turn Qatar into an island by building a canal on the border and dumping toxic waste into it, a Financial Times editorial argued that Qatar was being targeted by its neighbours for refusing to accept a ‘shadow role’, choosing to instead pursue its own foreign policy and support the growth of Arab media through Al Jazeera.
After initially backing the blockade in 2017, President Trump quickly withdrew his support when Saudi officials asked him to support a ground invasion of Qatar – a plan which presumably awakened Trump to the reality of their motivations.
The Qatari government has consistently refused to comply with the demands, stating that to do so would mean surrendering sovereignty. The country is determined to carve out its own path, with the space to deviate from Middle Eastern norms – no matter how much pressure it comes under from hostile neighbours.
That pressure has taken many forms, with the blockade causing economic damage as well as tearing families apart. A key plank of the aggression against Qatar has included accusing the country of funding terrorism, despite it being a member of the US-led coalition against Islamic State and hosting the largest US off-shore air base in the world.
Saudi Arabia embarked on a disinformation campaign, flooding social media with fake accounts that latched on to a broad range of issues including British football clubs and coronavirus to attack Qatar. These accounts smear any critic of Saudi Arabia as a pro-Qatar-shill and spread lies about Qatari support for terrorism. Last year The Guardian revealed that the disinformation campaign has even extended to creating a series of unbranded Facebook ‘news’ pages.
Since the start of the blockade it has attracted widespread criticism: human rights groups in Qatar have argued that the blockade was arbitrary, abusive and illegal, while the UN’s International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Qatar in the legal dispute over aircraft. In what may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the blockade, a report published in November 2020 by a UN special rapporteur labelled the blockade ‘illegal’, and called for it to end.
As Saudi Arabia sought and could not find support for its actions outside of the Middle Eastern countries under its immediate influence, its will to continue to the conflict reportedly waned – giving Kushner and his envoys an open door to push on. People close to the talks said that Saudi Arabia was motivated to end the blockade in part by its desire to get back onto a friendly footing with the US as President Trump leaves office and President-elect Biden prepares to enter The White House.
For the last three years the tiny, prosperous country of Qatar has stood up against attacks and smears from its closest neighbours, and the imminent deal shows that its leaders’ determination not to let the bullies win has paid off. Governments around the world will now be watching closely to see how this victory changes the balance of power in the region, and what the Qataris will do next with their freshly-won influence.