Residents reportedly stockpiling goods from supermarkets amid fears over food imports after land, sea and air routes closed.
The tiny Gulf state of Qatar has been literally and figuratively isolated by the escalating row with its Arab neighbours, with land, sea and air routes closed off in an unprecedented crisis in the Arabian peninsula that threatens longstanding trade deals.
The closure of the only land route into Qatar as well as the airspaces of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in effect established a blockade on Doha, which relies almost entirely on imports to feed its population.
It will damage the prospects of a recovery for Doha’s national carrier, Qatar Airways, amid a slowdown caused by the US administration’s ban on electronic devices in the cabins of aircraft flying from the Middle East, and will raise questions about the future of al-Jazeera, the flagship television network established by the Gulf kingdom and which has been at the centre of diplomatic rows with the rest of the region.
Along with the block on re-exports from Dubai to Qatar, together the measures could even affect the monarchy’s preparations for the football World Cup it is due to host in 2022.
“I cannot think of a comparable example. It does put major pressure on Qatar,” Robin Mills, CEO of the UAE-based Qamar Energy, said of the blockade. “I’m not sure how easily they can replace imports with other air or sea routes.”
Qatar has endured a sustained media onslaught by its Gulf neighbours in the last few weeks, after comments attributed to the country’s emir at a military graduation ceremony described Iran, Riyadh’s regional arch-rival, as a potential force for stability in the Middle East and alluded to tensions with the Trump administration in the US. Qatar claimed the quotes from the speech, which briefly appeared on its state news agency, were the result of hacking.
The campaign reached a crescendo on Monday with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain severing diplomatic relations and halting flights to and from Doha and expelling it from an Arab-led coalition fighting in Yemen, as well as demanding the departure within two weeks of Qatari residents and citizens in their countries.
The long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad as well as the budget airline FlyDubai said they would halt flights to Qatar, and stocks plunged.
Much of Qatar’s food imports arrive by land through the border with Saudi Arabia. Local media reports said residents had rushed to stockpile goods from supermarkets amid fears of an extended blockade.
The closure of Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini airspace is likely have a disastrous impact on Qatar Airways. Qatari flights will have to take much longer and more convoluted routes to get around the bans, flying over Iran while avoiding Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Syria, Israel and much of Iraq.
Al-Jazeera was already blocked in several Arab countries. The channel was praised for its coverage of the initial months of the Arab uprisings in 2011, but since then it has been transformed in the minds of many in the region into a tool for furthering Qatari foreign policy and promoting the views of Islamist groups that the monarchy has backed in recent years, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2014 the Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in a months-long diplomatic crisis, and one of the concessions offered by Doha was the closure of al-Jazeera Mubashir, a channel dedicated to propagating Muslim Brotherhood views about the 2013 coup in Egypt. Analysts suspect further curbs may be imposed on al-Jazeera this time around.
“The media has been one of the key themes in the diplomatic wrangling over the past few weeks,” said Amro Ali, an assistant professor in sociology at the American University of Cairo. “It is somewhat part of the existential makeup of the Qatari establishment and perceived as an informal branch of Doha’s government. It has helped cement Qatar’s international reach and legitimacy, yet ironically has now played a part in its undoing.”