Qatar is in the post blockade era now and has been recovering much faster than expected
The aim of this article is to examine the Saudi blockade over Qatar and its impact in the past 17 months on the country. A special focus will be given to the Sri Lankan workers who have been living in Qatar for the past two decades. The reason why the author has chosen it is because there are hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans living in Qatar, about 5.3% of the total population of the country.
Qatar is one of the smallest and high income countries in the world which was challenged by Saudi Arabia and some other Arab neighbours recently. On 5 June 2017 an air, sea and land blockade was imposed on Qatar by four Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt. The immediate reason for this blockade was 13 allegations against it.
Qatar has long practiced an ambitious foreign policy with different priorities to its neighbours but there are two key issues which have angered them in the recent years. One is Qatar's support for Islamist militant groups. The other key issue is Qatar's relations with Iran, with which it shares the world's largest gas field.
The unexpected blockade disturbed Qatar in many ways: food shortage, travel restrictions, high inflations, limitations on import and export, etc. Qatar is in the post blockade era now and it has been trying hard to overcome the above challenges. It is noted that Qatar is recovering much faster than expected and people who live in Qatar are very optimistic about the country and the service provided by the Head of State.
1. Qatar-Sri Lanka relations
The two countries’ diplomatic relations started in 1998. Since then, Sri Lanka has been maintaining a very cordial relations with Qatar in many ways. Qatar is one of the countries which has been receiving many Sri Lankan workers for its domestic work. According to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Qatar currently there are 140,000 Sri Lankans working there; around 79% of them are labourers and housemaids and 21% are professionals/skill workers.
Qatar is very important for Sri Lanka in terms of foreign remittances and humanitarian assistance. Large amount of foreign remittance ($ 400-500 million) comes from Qatar every year. Further Qatar provides financial assistance to the poor people in Sri Lanka through its charity organisations.
The Saudi blockade was a shocking news to Sri Lanka, any negative consequences of blockade can directly impact on the Sri Lankan economy. The Middle East is home to over a million Sri Lankan workers, around 600,000 workers in Saudi Arabia. The blockade not only impacts on Qatar but also disturbs many other countries in the world.
2. Introduction to the Qatar crisis
It has been 17 months since Qatar was cut off by its four Arab neighbours: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt. Qatar is a small peninsula in the Middle East, two-thirds of its territory is covered by the Persian Sea and one-third is covered by land.
Qatar has a direct land border with Saudi Arabia and it shares maritime borders with Bahrain, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar, once one of the poorest Gulf States, is one of the richest states in the region today. According to the UNDP report, Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world ($ 128,702) and it is classified as a country of very high human development and it is widely regarded as the most advanced Arab state on the Human Development Index (37/189).
The main income for Qatar is natural gas and oil. Petroleum and natural gas are the cornerstones of Qatar's economy and account for more than 70% of total government revenue, more than 60% of gross Domestic Product, and roughly 85% of export earnings. Qatar has the world's third largest proven natural gas reserve (14% of total world natural gas) and is the second-largest exporter of natural gas after Russia.
Although Qatar is very rich and is a high income country it has to depend largely on Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbours for its imports and exports. It is noted that Qatar is dependent on imports by land and sea for the basic needs of its population of 2.6 million, about 40% of its food came in through the land border with Saudi Arabia.
Up until 2017, Qatar was having smooth relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbours despite some misunderstandings and issues. However, on 5 June 2017 all of a sudden, the long-term friend Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbours imposed a blockade on air, sea and land to Qatar. Many thought it would be temporary but it has been continuing for more than 17 months without an end. It was the first time that Qatar faced such isolations from its long-term friends.
Although there were some verbal threats to Qatar in 2014, it did not lead to any blockade or isolations. It was the beginning of Ramadan (month of fasting) where naturally there is a huge demand for household items. People panicked and some decided to leave the country while many others were indecisive whether to stay or leave from Qatar.
Young Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani began to find some alternative ways both from air and sea to import necessary items from other countries. Turkey and Iran extended their support to Qatar while Kuwait and Oman1 began some negotiation role between Qatar and other Arab countries. Both parties did not come to any settlements.
Qatar kept denying the severe allegations against it while Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbours were not in a position to compromise their demands and lift their blockades. It was a win-win game for both parties. Being a rich country having a very high per capita, Qatar was able to import all necessary items both from Iran and Turkey. There was a shortage of food items for some time but Qatar was able to fill the gap within a short period of time.
However, currently the situation is different. Everything is available in the market although the price is a little higher than before – but the people are able to afford without any problem. The Qatari Government bears a big portion of the cost for imports and reduced the price for the sake of its people in the country. The way Qatar has been facing the blockade is very impressive and the people of Qatar are very positive about their leader and their country. It seems that Qatar has won the blockade and making tremendous progress without any problems.
Some scholars say that Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbours are the real losers in this game and they will end this blockade from their end very soon for the sake of their political, economic and social benefits.
One Sri Lankan taxi driver who has been living in Qatar for more than five years pointed out that he likes Qatar, the Emir, people, the culture, and most importantly the rule of law and does not want to leave the country for now. Being a Sri Lankan, the author was able to move freely with the Sri Lankan community in Qatar. Based on interviews, discussions and telephone conversations the author found out that none of the Sri Lankans have negative feelings about Qatar. It is a home to over 140,000 Sri Lankans and it is a paradise/heaven for some 30,000 professionals and skilled workers who live there with their families, friends and relatives.
3. Root causes for crisis
There are many root causes for the Saudi blockade over Qatar; 13 allegations against Qatar can be seen as immediate roots: (1) Downgrading diplomatic relations with Iran, (2) Ceasing of all military cooperation with Turkey, (3) Cutting off all of ties with terrorist groups, (4) Stopping all funding to terrorist groups, (5) Handing over all listed terrorists and criminals wanted by the four countries, (6) Shutting down Aljazeera and all affiliated stations, (7) Stopping meddling in other nations’ affairs and naturalising citizens of the four blockading countries, (8) Financially compensating the four countries caused by Qatar’s policies over the years, (9) Seeking harmony with surrounding countries and following the Riyadh agreement, (10) Handing over all information it holds on opposition elements Qatar supported, (11) Shutting down all news outlets funded directly and indirectly by Qatar, (12) All demands must be agreed to within 10 days or they become null and void, finally (13) An agreement with Qatar on these points were included.
The above 13 demands seems that Saudi Arabia and four other neighbouring Arab countries intend to minimise Qatar’s activities both within and outside the country. Further, all four Arab countries desired to weaken its economy and reduce its power in terms of political and diplomatic activities with other countries, especially with Iran. Finally, Saudi Arabia and three Arab neighbours want to weaken Al Jazeera and put some restrictions on few selected newspapers and local media in Qatar.
4. Consequences of the crisis
The Saudi blockade over Qatar has brought multiple consequences (negative and positive) both within and outside the country. In Qatar there were some domestic changes in terms of economy, politics, social and culture and others.
At the global level the crisis brought the following concerns. Firstly, the immigrant workers in Qatar, around 90% of Qatar’s labour force are foreign workers who come from different parts of the world: India (690,000), Nepalese (350,000), Bangladeshis (280,000), Filipinos (260,000), Egyptians (200,000), Sri Lankans (140,000), Pakistani (125,000), and some Africans (Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco), etc. These foreign workers had serious fears about their job security while their families, relatives and friends also had fears back in their home country.
Secondly, travel restrictions and money transferring. Many foreign workers had to find alternative ways to travel to their countries/homes safely and cheaply. Earlier there were 19 flights per day between Doha and Dubai, now they need to re-route their travel plan either via Oman or some other destinations. This consumes more time and extra money. Although, things are improving very fast, yet there are some problems due to the travel restrictions in Qatar.
One Sri Lankan labourer pointed out that earlier there were some affordable flights but after the blockade they are unable to find such flights anymore in Qatar. Thirdly, shortage of some household and food items. The Saudi border closure has prevented between 600-800 trucks per day entering Qatar from Saudi Arabia. Due to this blockade Saudi has stopped sending all items from there. For example, Almarai dairy products. Earlier Almarai was well known among the people in Qatar but now no more products from it.
Finally, lack of job market; due to this blockade some foreign companies stopped recruiting new employees while some companies terminated their current employers. The above consequences are negatives for Qatar nationals and foreigners but there are some positive consequences also that arose due to this blockade.
Firstly, Qatar began to invest in many foreign countries in various sectors such as real estate, automobiles, agriculture and animal husbandry, etc. Secondly, Qatar promotes domestic products and initiated some plans to be self-sufficient in the future. Thirdly, Qatar promotes education unlike before. Many Qatari students go abroad and study in various disciplines while Qatar invites foreign scholars and students to come to Qatar and explore their knowledge. It is noted that Qatari students are very smart and more active in their universities. In fact, it was personally observed by the author while he was doing a presentation to the Qatari students at Qatar National University and Doha Institute.
5. From the Sri Lankans’ point of view
This section will explain the concerns of Sri Lankan workers who live in Qatar in the following areas: Political views, economic views, social and cultural views, religious views and humanitarian views. In fact, the author conducted a two-week field survey in Qatar and met many Sri Lankans in the country: taxi drivers, shop keepers, house boys, construction officers, labourers, professionals (professors, engineers, technical advisors, HR managers, accountants, teachers, etc.) Based on interviews and discussions the author summarised their views as follows
Political views: It has been 20 years since the diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Qatar started. There are many official/State visits and agreements signed between these two countries. Up to now there is no political related problems or issues between the two countries. Qatar is unique in terms of politics, which promotes democracy, multi culture and freedoms within the country and across the region. Qatar has given voting rights to all its citizens above the age of 18. Qatar has recruited some female members into their executive branch and treats women well. Qatari women are allowed to study, work, and drive. One Sri Lankan technician pointed out that Qatar is a good country to live in as there are no worries about politics, government or judicial systems. If anyone does wrong then he or she must be punished according to Sharia laws. There are no excuses for any serious offences such as rape, murder and robbery. As a result, there is less corruption, less crimes and a high level of social security. One Sri Lankan engineer pointed out that he doesn’t see any political crisis or deadlock in the country. He stated that he likes Emir and loves the country very much. He showed me the poster of Sheik Tamim pasted on his car.
Economic views: Qatar is very important to Sri Lanka for its foreign remittance. Annually Sri Lanka receives around $ 500 million from Qatar through its foreign workers. The total foreign remittance in 2017 was $ 7.16 billion, it means Sri Lanka receives around 6.98% from Qatar. According to the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Qatar, Sri Lanka is hoping double it in next two years. Sri Lanka should have very good relations with Qatar for the sake of its economy (Sri Lankan Embassy in Qatar, 2018). Qatar is a very rich country in the Middle East. It has been supporting the Qatari nationals and foreign workers in many ways. Although the Qatari population is very small, around 11.8%, they know how to keep control of the country and promote its development while giving enough support to foreign workers.
Following are some keys for the success of Qatar in terms of economy: (1) All lands belong to the government (crown land). When there is a need for the Qatari or other foreign workers or investors they may do join ventures. Without Qatar nationals no one can own any business or properties. (2) Qatar provides loans for businesses and industries with zero interest. (3) All executive posts are hold by Qatari nationals (4) Encourage Qataris and assist them to be more active and functional. Qatar provides lots of services to the Qataris. Apart from the above facts there are some other factors too: Zero poverty, less unemployment, less corruptions and high level social security are keys for the success. During my two-week stay in Qatar I did not see a single beggar begging for money or food in any place. Food is cheap and available to anyone in the country.
Social and cultural views: Although Qatar is an Islamic country, it respects other cultures and their identities very much. Qatar allows foreigners to follow their identity and practice their cultures. However they cannot violate the Islamic values by practicing their culture excessively. It was observed that many foreigners who reside there respect themselves and the local culture. Even some none Muslims dress up in a good way in public. No disturbance, no harm and no indecent behaviours in public. Qatar is always very concerned about the Islamic culture, and in the meantime it gives enough room to foreigners to practice their cultures without harming Islamic values. One Sri Lankan Muslim worker in Qatar pointed out that what he likes the most in Qatar is every food item being halal. Another Sri Lankan worker pointed out that he feels more safety and protection.
Religious views: Most of the Muslims in Sri Lanka and Qatar follows Sunni principles, which helps them to practice Islam in one place without any differences. Islam is the predominant religion and makes up 77.5% of the population of Qatar and all others make up the remaining 22.5%. There are six churches and 36 Hindu kovils/temples in Qatar. Qatar allows other religions to practice their religion. However they cannot disturb the public or perform religious functions in public places like in Sri Lanka. All have their right to follow their religion and practice it but they cannot harm or disturb Islamic values. One Sri Lankan labourer pointed out that some of his Sri Lankan friends in Qatar are more righteous compared to how they were, when they were in Sri Lanka. He added that the Islamic culture and mosque environment was very inviting and it reduces the level of social crimes. It was observed by the author that the religious tolerance is very high in Qatar.
Humanitarian views: Qatar is well known for charities among many countries. Qatar has been helping many people all over the world under the name of humanitarian support. Qatar has opened Qatar charity in many countries including Sri Lanka and identifies needy people and provides necessary assistance to them. In Sri Lanka, Qatar charity funds for building mosques, cultural centres, houses, drinking water, playground and dry food rations, etc. Likewise it provides more humanitarian assistance to the people in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen etc. However, in the post blockade period Qatar was forced to close down some of its charity organisations in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and other neighbours accused Qatar of using charity organisations to finance terrorist groups but it was clearly denied by Qatar. One Sri Lankan worker in Qatar pointed out that he had been in Saudi for many years, however compared to Saudis, Qataris are more generous and kind. He mentioned that he received charity from Qatari people on many occasions.
The overall conclusion of this article is that although the Saudi blockade has brought some immediate impact in the country, with time Qatar is trying its level best to overcome those challenges. Being a powerful country in the region, Saudi has to have a soft corner for Qatar rather than punishing or isolating its long-term friend and neighbour. Further, Qatar needs to have more dialogues with Saudi and other Arab neighbours in order to sort out all the allegations in a peaceful manner.
Once the Qatar Emir had stated that his country can overcome this blockade sooner or later but he would like to work with Saudi and others for regional peace and stability. Peace in Qatar is not only important to Qataris but also important for many foreign workers and their families and relatives all over the world. Any negative consequences taking place in Qatar surely affect Sri Lanka’s political, social, economic, cultural and religious values.
The Saudi blockade is not only challenging to Qatar but also it is keeping check to many countries in the region and outside. Sri Lankans are very positive about Qatar and its progress, however there is a little worry about this continuous blockade and pray for normalcy and peace very soon.
[The writer, BA (Hons), MA and PhD – Japan, is attached to the University of Colombo.]
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1 Oman has been a good friend to Qatar for a long time. It is also a friend to many other Arab countries in the Middle East. According to some scholars Oman is the only country which has no conflict in the region at the moment. Being a friend, Oman can play a vital role towards peace in the Middle East. It has all the capacity and network to do that.