Focus: Lifting of the blockade

Strength Through Adversity

Jul. 8, 2021

The blockade, an attempt to curb Qatar's regional voice, despite spelling unwelcome attention and expense for Doha, highlighted alternative economic solutions, with an inevitable reversal following on January 5, 2021.

In June 2017, a shock decision made regional history as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain opted to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing unsurmountable ideological differences. Outwardly, this could not have come at a more damaging time for Doha, the nation's coastal seat of power on the Persian Gulf. Bloomberg data shows that in the year before the blockade, Qatar's total trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE amounted to approximately USD1.7 billion and USD3.5 billion, respectively.

Qatar had also been engaged in a program of economic diversification with a massive focus on international relations and its place in the international arena, both commercially and culturally. The 2022 World Cup had been secured, which, being an event viewed by the planet at large, is envisioned to catapult Qatar's ascendant star still higher. All this demands uninterrupted transport logistics networks operating like clockwork, which the embargo threatened to jeopardize. As it turned out, that was not exactly the case, as the solution often enough laid in strategic alternatives because...

What Doesn't Kill You…

On January 5, 2021, at the 41st GCC summit Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt signed a reconciliation deal with Qatar terminating the blockade, although differences of opinion on both sides can only persist, despite partially restored diplomatic relations. The embargo has revealed two key things. The first was the speed and unanimity with which regional players could move on a neighbor. The second was Doha's need for alternative economic means in such an possibility.

This presaged a new chapter in the friendship between Doha and Ankara, the latter of which maintains a military base in the former. It is no surprise either that Qatar is the second-largest foreign investor in Turkey's economy, itself destined for a northbound trajectory in the coming decades. Indeed, a main plank of the blockade had concerned Qatar's increased voice in Africa, mirrored in Turkey's greater boldness on that continent, and the Mediterranean.

Resumed Travel and Trade

A day ahead of the reversal announcement at the Gulf Arab leaders' summit, Saudi Arabia revealed that its airspace and borders would be reopened to Qatar. Subsequently, flights between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE resumed on January 11. The UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs announced that within a week of the agreement, “practical measures [concerning] airlines, shipping, and trade" would follow. Egypt, reluctant to opt for fully normalized diplomatic relations, reopened its airspace to Qatari flights on January 12 in step with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain.

The significance of this normalization of transport is clear from the numbers alone. With the blockade, in one fell swoop flights to and from Qatar were barred from the airspace of blockading countries, resulting in both time and fuel expense. Before the blockade, roughly 45% of overnight visitors to Qatar arrived from Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi and the UAE; the number plunged by 90% by 2019. Moreover, roughly 60% of Qatar's imports had originated in blockading countries. Shortly after the January 5 decision, Saudi Arabia opened the Salwa border crossing, which immediately saw demand. The Salwa border crossing features its own COVID-19 health center with medical professionals testing arrivals from Qatar and requiring them to commit to mandatory home quarantine. Commercial cargo movement through the Abu Samra port border resumed on February 14, again with certain regulatory and precautionary controls and procedures concerning commercial shipments.

Meanwhile, in response to the GCC U-turn, Doha has agreed to suspend international legal cases pertaining to the boycotting, opting instead to a pledge of resumed cooperation on transnational security. Yet, it has stressed that it will not step aside from its relations with Iran and Turkey.

Regional competition between the UAE and Qatar, plus the latter's frowned-upon relations with Turkey and Iran and their geographical engagements, clearly spell strained relations going forward to some extent. Fortunately, as is usually the case in international relations, the buck stops, well, at the buck. Saudi Arabia, for one, the main voice in the regional choir, is facing its own heat on the international stage from the new occupant of the White House. The fact is that all GCC nations prefer deeper security integration rather than a regionally destabilizing policy of hostility that, in a region blighted by it, is inevitably bad for business.

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