Tue, Jun 20, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Showdown in the Gulf exposes fragility of world’s richest nation

Qatar has rarely looked more vulnerable, as its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has exposed its precarious position

By Donna Abu-Nasr  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

Speaking at her new exhibition in Doha, Qatari artist Maryam al-Semaitt explained to guests the central message of her latest work: what happens when great wealth is taken for granted.

That money, mainly from selling natural gas from a peninsula in the Gulf desert that was a British protectorate until 1971, has paid for the city’s skyscrapers, hotels and investments in some of the world’s most iconic companies, buildings and sports teams. What it cannot do, she said, is provide a shield for what is now the world’s richest nation.

The showdown with Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has exposed the precarious position of Qatar. The soft power of the multibillion-dollar Qatar brand that was meant to protect it has never looked more fragile. Doha’s isolation, cutting it off from diplomatic and transport links, is entering its third week.

“The fact that we have always taken safety for granted, security for granted, now we’re questioning these kinds of things,” al-Semaitt, 27, said on Friday, the second day of the exhibition showing her sculptures and images done with another artist.

The point is to highlight how “we never actually stop and appreciate what we have in our lives until we lose it,” she said.

At the crux of Qatar’s predicament is its refusal to toe the line drawn by more powerful neighbors. It adopted the ultra-conservative Saudi strain of Islam, though a lighter version, and as its economy boomed, foreign policy diverged. Though Qataris and their emir remain defiant, the question is how to sustain an almost paradoxical existence.

Take foreign policy. Qatar has hosted a US air base since the early 2000s while maintaining close ties to Muslim groups.

According to the Saudis and Emiratis, Qatar funds jihad while its US$335 billion sovereign wealth fund has stakes in global companies from German carmaker Volkswagen AG to Glencore and Barclays PLC.

In 2022, Qatar is due to host the World Cup, the showpiece global soccer tournament.

“The Qatar brand was about producing security and legitimacy,” said Samer Shehata, an associate professor at the politics and international relations program at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. “It was about putting Qatar on the map so everybody knew what Qatar was, who Qatar is and the importance of Qatar. It became visible.”

“But in the end what does soft power get you ” he added. “Can it produce security? The current crisis exposes this question. I’m not sure soft power by itself is enough, especially if you live in a bad neighborhood.”

Qatar’s alternative path goes back to when the British empire was in its final death throes. It had been a protectorate since the Ottomans were defeated during World War I and the dominant Al Thani family agreed to cede control in return for security.

The early energy industry brought in revenue in the 1950s and 1960s, before the nation decided to go it alone rather than join what became the UAE as another emirate.

For sure, income from a giant gas field has allowed Qatar to extend its influence beyond money. With per capita income of US$130,000 more than twice Saudi Arabia’s — it supported Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party outlawed by its two Sunni Gulf neighbors, and opposed efforts to isolate Shiite rival Iran.

Its al-Jazeera satellite television channel has broadcast messages from al-Qaeda and supported dissidents against Arab dictators. Over the years, it enraged Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian leaders who have often stopped its transmissions and kicked out its staff.

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