Food queues in Qatar as borders shut amid diplomatic row

Qataris are rushing to supermarkets to stock up on food after Saudi Arabia, Gulf Arab states and a growing number of nations have cut ties with the small Persian Gulf nation.


Residents of Qatar awoke to the news Monday morning that neighbouring Saudi Arabia – the only country with which Qatar shares a border – has severed relations with the nation, along with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Yemen and the Eastern-based government in Libya.

Qatar is dependent on food imports from Saudi Arabia, so the border closing could well make it difficult for people to fill their fridges. The fear of running low on food is particularly troublesome given that Muslims are currently observing Ramadan, when the faithful fast all day but feast after sundown. The six other nations that cut ties have also closed their borders and are suspending air and sea links.

The stated reason for the rupture is that Qatar backs terrorist groups, including the Islamic State group and al Qaeda. Qatar called the decision “unjustified”. But Qatar’s backing of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood has long been a source of tension with its regional neighbours and has led to similar, though less severe, standoffs in the past.

Qatar also has close ties with Iran – by necessity, as the two share the largest natural gas field in the world. Egypt and the Gulf States (known as the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC) consider Iran to be a bad actor in the region, and during US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia he made it clear that he shares that view.

“For a long while, Qatari foreign policy has been deemed by much of the rest of the GCC as being something of a ‘loose cannon’, and certainly not falling naturally into line with the more dominant members of the GCC – Saudi and the UAE,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London. “But this is different. The isolation of Doha is far more expansive than ever before.”

The move was initiated Monday morning by Bahrain, with the other nations quickly following suit. The consequences were swift. Diplomats have been recalled and Qatari citizens living abroad have been told they must go home.

This iteration of the long-simmering tensions was exacerbated by a duo of purported hacks, first one of the Qatari state news agency that resulted in the publishing of what it called fake comments by its ruling emir about Israel and Iran. The second was a hack of the email account belonging to the UAE’s ambassador to the US that allegedly showed an intensifying relationship between the UAE and a pro-Israeli neo-conservative think tank centering around their shared distrust of Iran.
To add insult to injury, the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera network recently posted a cartoon that was deemed to be an insult to the Saudi king.

Trump's tone

Trump may have had a role in all this as well. While the meetings he held in Saudi Arabia with leaders form the UAE, Saudi and Egypt were warm affairs, his talk with the Qatari leadership was reportedly less so.

“Trump’s visit most likely empowered the Saudis, the GCC and the Egyptians,” said Adel Abdel Ghafar, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha. “His rhetoric has been very anti-Iran and anti-Islamist.”

Does this all mean that an already unstable region is likely to be pushed over the edge? Abdel Ghafar doesn’t think so.

“Qatar will have to back down, but will have to do it gradually and without losing face,” he said, making his best guess as to how the crisis will playout. “It is not in their long-term interest to have a spat with Saudi Arabia.” Not only does Saudi Arabia have the biggest land mass and the largest army in the region, he explained, but they are a major supplier of food for Qatar.

If they want a return to diplomatic normalcy, the Qataris will have to find ways to de-escalate. That should be relatively easy on the Islamist front, Abdel Ghafar posited. They can expel a few high-profile radical voices from the country and tone down Al Jazeera’s rhetoric. The bigger challenge will be managing Iran, with whom they have to get along for their own economic well-being.

“They’ll never cut ties, but they’ll have to start to fall in line a bit with the GCC position,” he said.

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