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Isolated Qatar reaches out to the world

With its deep pockets, the world’s richest country has weathered a year-long boycott by its neighbours well

PUBLISHED: JUN 12, 2018, 5:00 AM SGT

Arlina Arshad Regional Correspondent In Doha (Qatar)

Every year, Qatari housewife Dima Mohamed and her husband fly to Saudi Arabia to celebrate Eid al-Fitr with her mother and sisters. But when Muslims around the world get together for big family reunions to mark the holy festival this week, the couple will be staying home in Doha, and not by choice.

Accused of supporting terrorism and forging cordial links with Iran, their city-state has been placed under a land, air and sea boycott by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt since June 5 last year. Travel by Qataris to those countries is either banned or restricted.

“I haven’t met my family for a year and I miss them a lot. Why must they break us up? It’s unfair,” Ms Dima told The Straits Times.

A year since what was said to be the Gulf’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades, the biggest blow to tens of thousands of Qataris is to be separated from their family and friends, since the gas-rich emirate in the Arabian Peninsula appears to have been largely unscathed by the diplomatic and economic boycott.

Before the crisis, citizens from the Arab Gulf nations had enjoyed great freedom moving around the region, and maintained close tribal ties. Inter-marriage was common as a means to strengthen traditional clan identity and preserve personal wealth.

“Why drag us into your politics? During Ramadan, it’s normal to visit our relatives in the region and go to Mecca to perform the small umrah pilgrimage, but now we can’t. I’m scared to telephone my friends in Dubai in case they get into trouble for communicating with me,” civil servant Hamdan Al Sultan, 43, said.

When the crisis first erupted, a wave of panic swept through the tiny state of 2.7 million people, more than 300,000 of whom are Qataris. The rest are foreign residents, mostly workers.

In the initial days, supermarket shelves were stripped bare, banks faced massive deposit withdrawals, and citizens from the boycotting countries, except Egypt, were recalled. Planes and cargo ships were diverted, disrupting food and medicine imports. Even camels and sheep were not spared, with 12,000 animals forcibly driven through the sole land border with Saudi Arabia in the south.

With an estimated US$335 billion (S$447 billion) of assets in its sovereign wealth fund, Qatar – the world’s richest country – still had to dig deep into its pockets to limit the repercussions. It also sought help from Turkey and Iran.

“Qatar is a country with massive financial resources so of course it could afford to pay for the additional costs,” National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute (MEI) senior research fellow Mattia Tomba told The Straits Times.

The Qatari government’s communications office director Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed bin Saif Al Thani said they have had to develop “our country even faster than ever before” in the past 12 months.

Now, grocery shelves proudly display “Qatar products” by homegrown companies: bread from Qbake, fresh milk from Baladna, and organic vegetables from Agrico. But most of the food is still imported – from South African turnips and Singapore spring rolls to French cheese and Australian carrots.

Construction of state-of-the-art stadiums and other infrastructure for the 2022 Fifa World Cup remains on track, and a new US$7.4 billion Hamad megaport launched last September on Qatar’s southeastern coast has created new sea links that bring in vital food supplies and building materials.

Previously, supplies were mainly shipped in through Dubai’s flagship port of Jebel Ali or transported by trucks from Saudi Arabia through the southern border.

Supplies were also flown in from neighbouring countries.

When this reporter visited Doha recently, Qatari men in their trademark white robes and women in black abayas were going about their daily lives as per normal, driving shiny Lexus vehicles and toting Chanel and Birkin handbags to lavish hotel buffets called “Ramadan tents” to break their fast.

The worst days seem to be over.

The International Monetary Fund, which had earlier warned of the row hurting the economies of the wider Gulf region, said in its May 30 report that Qatar’s “growth performance remains resilient”.

It added that “considerable buffers and sound macroeconomic policies have helped Qatar successfully absorb shocks” from the row and lower hydrocarbon prices.

Qatar’s Energy and Industry Minister Mohammed Saleh Abdulla Al Sada said: “Their (bloc of four) idea was to destabilise the state of Qatar. What happened was contrary to what they wanted. We are stronger but the region is weaker in unity, stability and economic progress.”

Thanking the international community for its support, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said: “Qatar has a lot of friends (and) built its relationship with a lot of countries.”

GOING INTERNATIONAL

Far in the desert, 50km north of Doha, Qatari-owned dairy firm Baladna has emerged as a national hero as the nation grapples with ensuring food security for its people.

Last year, the sheep and goat farm had no dairy herd to speak of. The boycott – which Qatar calls a blockade – prompted it to airlift thousands of dairy cows from the United States. These are milked by machines in barns cooled by a high-pressure misting system.

Today, the firm’s 10,000 cows produce 500,000 litres of fresh milk a day, enough to feed the entire population which previously had depended on milk imports from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“To be honest, I’ve been (in the dairy industry) for many, many many years… I’ve never seen a project like this realised at such a speed. Never, ever,” its chief executive Peter Weltevreden said.

Indeed, the boycott has accelerated labour, economic and institutional reforms and served as a wake-up call for Qatar to shed its heavy reliance on food imports and natural gas exports.

The monarchy has since last June also built more than 500 greenhouses in the arid desert and hopes to become self-sufficient in vegetable production by 2020.

Qatar has also learnt “a wonderful lesson” in opening its doors to the international market, officials said. It has waived entry visas for citizens of 80 countries, including Singapore, built new sources and trade routes for basic goods such as food and medicine, as well as inked new, long-term contracts for economic cooperation with various countries.

Mr Sheikh Mohammed said Asia, the country’s largest export market, helped tide it over the crisis in the early days by facilitating shipments through the region.

He added that Qatar has a “very strong and solid” relationship with many Asian countries including Singapore, and its sea ports have established nine new shipping lines, mostly via Asian countries, including Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India.

The ultra-modern Hamad port, built mainly by Chinese company China Harbour Engineering, has allowed the country to reach out to international markets on its own.

Asked how the boycott has affected him personally, Mr Sheikh Mohammed said: “It has made us more resilient and solid.”

NO WINNERS

Still, despite their country’s triumphs and plaudits, Qataris hope for an end to the bad blood. A proposed summit between the US and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council will convene in September to try and resolve the issue.

Mr Sheikh Saif said: “We do want to see it resolved for the sake of the people and for the sake of stability of the region. But we are moving forward either way.”

MEI’s Mr Tomba said there are no winners in the year-long crisis.

Falling oil prices have hurt countries in the Middle East and, although Qatar has been able to withstand the effects of the boycott so far, the extra costs are a burden.

“The whole Middle East is struggling. The economy is going down, people are leaving, businesses are closing. It’s a bad situation for everyone,” he said.

But there are few signs that the crisis will simmer down despite it having damaged the economies across the Gulf. The stand-off appears to have only deepened the rivalry for dominance.

Saudi Arabia, the largest Gulf country, reportedly is mulling over a plan to dig a canal along the length of its land border with Qatar, effectively cutting it off and turning it into an island. Saudi media has reported that Riyadh is planning to build a new military base and a facility for nuclear waste there.

Mr Sheikh Saif, however, has dismissed the proposal as a “funny story”, and one of “the random things they have been doing throughout this crisis”.

But ordinary citizens remain hopeful of a reconciliation.

Over fruit juice and shisha at the old Souq Waqif market, cousins Nasser Al-Naimi and Rashid Al-Naimi said the boycott has made them more adventurous as they now go on holiday to other countries and get to sample international foods.

“In Oman, I met a Saudi guy who said, ‘We are sorry about what happened, you are our brothers’. This is politics, normal people have nothing against you,” said Mr Nasser.

But being separated from their loved ones remains a sore point for mixed-nationality families. Mr Rashid said: “I have family in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, and friends in Dubai, Kuwait. We are all in the same one family. I wish to meet them this Eid but I cannot go there.”

This article was originally published on the following websites : https://www.straitstimes.com/world/isolated-qatar-reaches-out-to-the-world?xtor=CS1-113

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