The suddenness and scope of the diplomatic row between Qatar and its neighbors came as a shock, not just for experienced Gulf experts but residents of the Gulf — Arabs and expats alike — who have experienced very real day-to-day consequences.
For most expats in the Gulf, the internal decision-making processes of their host governments, or the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are abstract and largely ignored.
Aside from local, municipal decisions such as hikes in taxi fares or new rules governing rental payments, most expats in the region aren’t particularly interested in the internal dynamics of governments. It simply isn’t something that affects them.
The instant effects of the Qatar crisis changed all that, and the region’s complicated geopolitics quickly became very real to millions of people around the region.
Doha — which is topped only by Dubai as a regional travel hub — became off-limits overnight. Many of my friends and colleagues were forced to re-book flights they had previously booked on Qatar Airways and to opt for longer and more expensive options.
For people like me who fly to Europe and the United States with some regularity, the most immediate concern is that Qatar, which was previously a cheaper alternative than other regional airlines, is now no longer available.
One resident of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) I know was forced to re-book a flight to East Asia on another airline and was told by overloaded Qatar Airways that it might take up to 12 weeks for him to be refunded. Many, many others who had planned trips to Doha now have to travel through Oman or Kuwait, adding hours to their trip.
Among the first signs of the crisis was the fact that al-Jazeera’s website was blocked, and both its Arabic and English channels were no longer available on television.
Many expats — Britons in particular — were also to realize that the Qatari-owned beIN sports channel, which holds the broadcast rights for English Premier League soccer, was no longer on the air. Many thousands of expats in the UAE, keen football fans, have paid for the service but can no longer access it.
Panic rises among Qataris.
The most affected by the crisis are, of course, Qataris and Qatar residents, who now find themselves isolated and largely cut off from the rest of the region.
Many of them heard the news through social media and foreign newspapers, as Qatari news outlets did not cover the initial decree. Qataris living in other Gulf nations were given 14 days to leave, with diplomats being given only 48 hours.
The news quickly created a sense of panic in Doha, with many hundreds of locals and residents headed to grocery stores to stock up on supplies.
Approximately half of Qatar’s food imports come from the rest of the Middle East, much of it through the land border from Saudi Arabia, which is now closed. Many local residents have expressed considerable concern about that.
Unfortunately, it seems that the diplomatic rupture is unlikely to end anytime soon. The concerns that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies have about Qatar’s links with groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Iran, go back quite some time. Qatar’s polices are unlikely to be reversed.
Saudi Arabia’s demands are unlikely to be met.
On June 23, Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies and Egypt gave Qatar a list of 13 demands they said needed to be met before the diplomatic blockade could end. The ultimatum included a demand that Qatar sever ties with various Islamist groups, close al-Jazeera and its affiliates, and break off relations with Iran.
That is unlikely to happen.
Even before the demands were made, Qatari officials noted that they aren’t ready to negotiate unless the sanctions are lifted. Officials have since noted that the demands aren’t realistic or actionable.
Cutting off relations with Iran, for example, would mean giving up lucrative economic ties. Closing down al-Jazeera would deprive the country of one of its highest profile achievements, one that gives Doha soft-power influence throughout the region.
In a region where appearances are everything, Qatar cannot afford to lose face by backing down and essentially letting others dictate its foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the rest of the coalition lined up against Qatar aren’t any more likely to budge.
They are negotiating from a unified position of strength and likely feel emboldened by what they perceive to be a U.S. administration that broadly supports their interests and that they see eye-to-eye with, particularly when it comes to terrorism and concerns over Iran’s influence the region.
In the meantime, those of us in the Gulf will continue to track developments closely and, most importantly, observe how this continues to effect our everyday lives.