Mideast neighbors continue surprise embargo against Qatar

QAT130227AA001.jpegCAIRO- Last year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain jointly accused Qatar, a Persian Gulf state with a land mass the size of Connecticut and the world’s third-largest reserve of natural-gas and oil, of supporting Islamist terror groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Now in its ninth month, the embargo by four formerly friendly Arab nations against Qatar has split families, raised the prices for food and medicine – and revealed to the Qataris that their small but proud nation is reliant on the good graces of others.

“Our worlds were shaken after neighboring countries announced the embargo,” said Farah Abel, a trainee at the World Innovation Summit for Education, a nonprofit funded by the Qatar Foundation. “We felt under attack and our sister countries made us question food security, militaristic intervention, travel bans, and even family ties.”

The blockading Gulf states say the measure was necessary to stop Qatar from funneling funds to groups destabilizing the region – a step that immediately followed President Donald Trump's meeting with Saudi leaders.

“Qatar gives members of the Muslim Brotherhood a haven in Doha and allows them through Al Jazeera (television) to incite for the overthrow of president Abdel Fattah El Sissi,” said Nevine Mossaad a Cairo University political scientist. “Nothing has motivated Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to stop this support for terrorism.”

Cairo has explicitly pointed the finger at Qatar for financing Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked groups operating in the Sinai, the Nile Valley, and the desert borderlands with neighboring Libya, while other Gulf states point to money flows to Al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel groups and Shiite militias in Iraq.

“He even extended this sabotage to his neighbors, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates,” added Mossaad echoing the views of the Arab leaders who submitted a list of 13 security and political demands to Qatar June 22 that include also closing the us airbase in Qatar. “The Qatari role is one of the main sources of instability, turmoil, and violence in the Arab region and specially so in Egypt.”

Al Udeid Air Base in the southwestern part of the country is the largest operations center for the US military in the Middle East and houses almost 10,000 American personnel.

Qatari officials have rejected the accusations even as there have been talks, including mediation attempts by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Still, few believe an upcoming meeting between Qatar and the other Arab states in mid-April, will lead to a quick resolution.

“After nine months of not even being able to send text messages to family members in the boycotting countries, the Qataris themselves have become more nationalistic, and have rallied to their Emir so Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has come to be seen as a real leader,” said Harry Verhoeven, professor of government at Georgetown University’s Doha campus. “It’s actually going to become more difficult for him now to give into the humiliating demands of (UAE President) Sheikh Khalifa and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.”

Still, Qatari nationals –- who comprise only a little over 14 percent of the population of 2.6 million – say the embargo is hurting their pocketbooks and their relationships.

“This is bigger than a certain brand of juice not being available at the supermarket,” said Nasser Al-Rayes, 24 years old basketball player for Al Saad Sports Club, “My cousin is married to an Emirati woman and he can longer see her because of this blockade. In his case matters are even more complicated since she has ties to the ruling family of (the emirate of) Abu Dhabi.”

Saudi Arabia closed the Salwa border crossing last June, blocking Qatar’s only land connection with the outside world and prompting Qatari businessman Moutaz Al Khayyat to fly 4,000 cows to the Doha airport to supply fresh milk that was formerly trucked in from the next-door kingdom.

All Qatar’s cargo now must pass through the Doha’s sea or airport and the cost of air transit has soared as carriers scrambled to reroute flights away from the blockading countries.

“The flights’ cost and duration has increased and may also force them to pass over unsafe zones in other countries, such as Iraq adding to both the price of fuel and insurance,” said Ali Salah, an economist at Future Research, a think tank in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Qatar Airways lost revenue on more than 50 routes to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. And Qataris and the foreigners living there find themselves taking circuitous routes to visit love ones or conduct business.

“I had to change planes in Oman and Beirut and pay about 2,400 Qatari Riyals ($600) more than usual in order to get back to Cairo for my sister’s wedding,” said Hassan Abdel Meguid, a 29-year-old Egyptian engineer who works for a Qatari construction firm.

“The other issue is transferring money to my family back home because there is now a daily limit which just means I waste more time going to the local bank and Western Union.”

More worrisome to Abdel Meguid and the other foreign workers in Qatar is the exit of hundreds of construction companies in the county where architects and builders had found an El Dorado of projects driven largely by preparations for the 2022 World Cup football tournament.

In February, Saudi Arabia demanded that the global soccer association FIFA strip Qatar of the 2022 World Cup not over concerns over its alleged support for terrorists – but rather of vote buying to secure the rights to host the event in the 2010 nomination process.

The demand to pull the tournament has gathered steam in Europe where German publications have published details of the alleged bribes and in Britain where members of the majority Conservative Party have called for an inquiry.

“The decision to award the World Cup to Qatar has to be reviewed,” said Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee in the House of Commons. 

Despite what feels like unfair bullying by kindred nations, Qataris say they support their leaders and have developed an inner resilience to the blockade. They are also thankful their leaders have deep pockets of resources on reserve – its sovereign wealth fund boasts some $338 billion in assets.

“My real concern lies in the relations between the people of all these countries,” said Aliya Fakhroo, a 24-year-old student in Doha. “Will the hatred that’s been spurred go away?

An alternative versio of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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