Why the Qatar blockade matters
The blockading countries are trying to reverse the gains made in the region during the Arab Spring.
On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the support of Egypt and Bahrain, imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Qatar. As part of the blockade, the quartet not only severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, but also embarked on a global diplomatic and media campaign against the country. On its third anniversary, it is important to revisit the reasons behind this move.
On June 23, 2017, the four blockading countries issued a list of 13 demands to end the crisis. The list included stipulations that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera network and end contact with organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In reality, Qatar does not host or support any transnational political organisations or networks, unlike some of the blockading countries.
The ultimatum issued by the blockading quartet echoed the 1914 ultimatum presented by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Serbia which asked the country to “suppress all anti-Austrian propaganda and take steps to root out and eliminate terrorist organisations within its borders”. At the time, the British cabinet and Prime Minister Winston Churchill had concluded that it was “absolutely impossible that the demands would be accepted or that their acceptance would satisfy the aggressors”.
In both cases, the real demand was capitulation.
The four blockading countries wanted to force Qatar to capitulate to their vision for the future of the region, which requires the re-establishment of the regional order that was shattered by the Arab Spring in 2011.
The Arab Spring was a counter-narrative to the prevailing order of the day. It broke out spontaneously and sought freedom, new opportunities and a path of progress for the people of the region. Rolling back the consequences of the Arab Spring has been the goal of the blockading countries since 2011.
As part of their efforts to counter the gains made in the region during the Arab Spring, these countries also sought international support. To get states like France, the United Kingdom and the United States on their side, the blockading countries supported the divisive – and at times blatantly Islamophobic – policies in these countries.
Even before their blockade on Qatar, the quartet’s efforts to re-establish the pre-Arab Spring regional order had caused devastation across the Middle East.
In 2015, they launched a war in Yemen. In 2016, they supported a failed coup attempt against Turkey’s government, which created tensions between Ankara and its Western allies and undermined cooperation on other regional issues. In 2017, they not only launched the ongoing blockade on Qatar, but also detained Lebanon’s prime minister and threatened to attack Lebanese targets. If these attacks had materialised, they would have plunged the region into a major war.
In 2018, the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi created further political tensions. In 2019, the blockading countries came to the brink of war with Iran. Throughout, citizens of the blockading countries who were suspected of deviating from this narrative were detained, tortured and even murdered.
The blockading countries are trying to sell a promise of progress and liberalisation, sweetened by commercial and security deals, in exchange for international support for their plans to re-establish a vicious, authoritarian regional order. Countries that buy into this narrative, and those who try to present it as progress, are focusing on short-term gains while ignoring the existing sources of discontent and instability. This narrative has been tried and tested over many decades and proved a failure.
An example of this is Tunisia, which has been governed by a most vicious form of liberal authoritarianism for many decades. The suffering this governance model caused in the country only came to an end in 2011, when the regime was toppled as a result of widespread protests. The revolution in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring and led to the toppling of many other dictators in the region. Despite the odds, Tunisia today is on a path to building political bridges between sectors of the society that have been sharply divided by the legacy of an authoritarian regime that cloaked itself in false liberal values.
The blockading countries are attempting to prevent the region from having a future based on a new, peacefully negotiated social contract that the Arab Spring has shown is possible.
Qatar does not want to be part of such attempts. It has opted for a more meaningful pathway based on measured progress, which allows it to maintain internal balance and recognises the importance of the values its society is based on.
This has allowed it to pursue a balanced path of progress in education, gender and broader development goals. In media, this balanced approach allowed it to create the first Arabic news satellite channel in 1997, which to this day is the most popular channel in the region. Al Jazeera across its network today provides the most diverse views on political and social issues in the region.
In foreign policy, Qatar cultivated a balanced relationship with all countries based on the principles of dialogue, development cooperation and mediation. It advocates bilateral, regional and global partnerships to create a shared and responsible future.
Despite the blockade, Qatar committed $500m last year to support UN projects over the next five years and this year announced $100m to support islands and small states affected adversely by climate change. To counter the coronavirus pandemic, and alleviate its consequences, Qatar has sent medical supplies to 20 countries and contributed $140m to global relief efforts, including $20m for vaccine research.
After COVID-19, the region, more than ever, critically needs a new pathway for a shared and responsible future based on forward-looking partnerships. This can only be created through dialogue between countries of the region and within their societies. Narratives and policies blockading this pathway to the future should not be allowed to stand.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.