Qataris stay calm under pressure from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Trump’s tweeting

In private, government officials were infuriated by what they consider to be a plot against their country

Qatari foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani: “We are willing to sit and talk”. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday morning, without forewarning, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – backed up by Egypt and a group of smaller Arab and Muslim states – abruptly cut off diplomatic ties with their neighbour Qatar.

They also closed their borders and airspace to traffic and suspended all flights in to and out of the tiny Gulf kingdom. Qatari citizens living in both countries were told to leave within 14 days and Qatari troops fighting in the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen were immediately ordered home.

The reaction in the Qatari capital of Doha, home to most of the country's 2.5 million inhabitants, was one of surprise verging on disbelief, particularly as the timing coincided with the first full week of Ramadan, usually a peaceful time in the Muslim world.

Immediate fears centred on the fresh food that is supplied to the country’s stores by road from Saudi Arabia. The air travel boycott provoked serious concern, especially for the thousands of expat families preparing to travel home for the summer months.


In private, government officials were infuriated by what they consider to be a plot against their country orchestrated at the highest levels in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, is said to view it as a direct attack on his rule by outside forces with a track record of interfering in domestic Qatari politics.

In public, senior officials have adopted a conciliatory but firm position. As foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani explained in an interview with CNN: “We are willing to sit and talk”, but he was clear that attempts to impose policies on Qatar are “out of the question”.

He followed this up later in the week by insisting “We are not ready to surrender, and will never be ready to surrender, the independence of our foreign policy”.

In line with this, officials have rejected claims that Qatar supports terrorism and have defended relations with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a foreign policy based on "dialogue" rather than "hostile measures".

Two other Qatari arguments have made a real impact: that the country is a victim of a direct assault on its national sovereignty and its opponents are undermining regional stability and inflaming the wider Middle East.

Qatar is home to two of the United States's largest and most strategically placed overseas military bases. They serve as the forward HQ of US central command and provide vital intelligence for US operations in the wider region. Both play a key role in the US-led air war against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

As long as the US bases continue operating there, Qatar will remain an important strategic player in the region, in spite of Donald Trump’s intervention in the dispute on the side of Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, the US president appeared to take credit for the Saudis’ move against Qatar, tweeting, in reference to his recent trip to Riyadh: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!!”

Trump's ill-informed tweets caused confusion, but at the same time, they also strengthened Qatar's position as they forced both the State Department and the Pentagon to reaffirm publicly their commitment to the alliance with the kingdom and the continued presence of the bases.

This was an important development for Qatari citizens who are watching events closely. They account for around 12 per cent of the total population of 2.5 million and almost all back their emir wholeheartedly and share his outrage over what has happened.

They are shocked over the extreme hostility being expressed towards their country in the media and government circles of neighbours and long-time allies who share family and business ties, as well as a common language, religion and history with Qatar.

In this regard, the UAE’s new law, which makes expressions of sympathy for Qatar a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, has been met with a mixture of disbelief and disdain.

Qatar today is an oasis of stability in a dangerous region. It has experienced only one Islamist terror attack since 2000 and is the only Middle East state included in the world’s 50 most peaceful nations according to the Global Peace Index 2017.

Older Qataris who lived through the brutal and destructive eight-year war between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s worry that this crisis could divide the Arab Gulf beyond repair and signal a return to the bad old days.

The large population of under-35s have grown up in Qatar’s golden age. They don’t remember a time before their country was the richest in the world in terms of per capita income or before it was a key player in the global energy, financial, investment and property markets.

That makes them far more confident than the older generation that their country can continue to make progress at home and abroad despite the current crisis.

They are proud that their country became the first Arab or Muslim nation to win the right to host the World Cup and that it re-invented news reporting in the Arab and Muslim world through Al-Jazeera. They are even prouder that Qatar is now an important regional and international actor with an independent foreign policy.

Younger Qataris take solace in all this at a difficult time. “We are a strong country”, one explained, “and nothing our neighbours do is going to change that”.

Rory Miller is professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar. His book Desert Kingdoms to Global Powers: The Rise of the Arab Gulf was published recently