By BEN HUBBARD
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, left, with Qatar’s foreign minister at the Doha Forum. (Noushad Thekkayil/EPA, via Shutterstock)
DOHA, Qatar — For signs of how Qatar has adapted to the blockade imposed by its neighbors, consider the Al Meera grocery in a residential part of the capital. Shelves where local products were once rare now hold Qatari milk, Qatari tissues and Qatari cucumbers.
“This is Qatari. This is Qatari. This is all Qatari,” a supervisor said, pointing out laundry detergent, dish soap and disinfectant.
Producing such products at home may be usual for many countries, but for Qatar it was one of many defensive shifts to survive a political and economic assault.
Eighteen months after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a land and sea blockade, this gas-rich strip of sand has adapted, retooling its economy and foreign relations in ways that could reshape the strategic layout of the Persian Gulf.
Qatar has boosted its military, pursued deeper ties with neighbors like Iran, and committed to the behavior that rankled its Arab neighbors in the first place, like covering their scandals on its Al Jazeera satellite network.
“We carried on; we moved on with our economy; we moved on with our life,” Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said in mid-December at the Doha Forum, an international conference in the Qatari capital. Qatar still held out hope for reconciliation, he said, but the blockade had caused “a very deep wound among the people” that would be difficult to heal.
Many countries would have collapsed under the restrictions imposed on Qatar by its larger neighbors, who accused it of financing terrorism, interfering in their domestic affairs and growing too close to Iran. They were especially incensed by Qatar’s support for activists across the Arab world, including the political Islamists that other Gulf monarchs consider a threat to their rule.
Qatar’s leaders deny the allegations, and say what really angered their neighbors was the country’s refusal to follow the Saudi and Emirati leaders.
The country’s vast wealth made it easier to cope with the blockade. Qatar dipped deeply into its $340 billion reserve funds to establish new trading partners, build up domestic industries and create new ones.
In December, Qatar announced that it was leaving OPEC, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel. And while it remains a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Qatar expects little from it. Qatar would like progress on certain issues, like being able to use its neighbors’ airspace and some easing of travel restrictions for families separated by the crisis, said Andreas Krieg of King’s College London, but has become less urgent about resolving the blockade.
“Nothing else is itching or hurting them anymore,” he said. “The pain they thought they would feel they don’t feel.”
In November, Foreign Minister Thani said Qatar was no longer spending its reserves.
“We are over the blockade,” he said, adding that it had helped Qatar by pushing it to open new markets.
Economists, however, say the blockade has sapped Qatar’s economy as the government has marshaled its reserves to airlift in supplies and stabilize banks. Tourism income and real estate prices have fallen, they say, and consumer prices have gone up.
The Doha Forum pointed to Qatar’s new direction. The government flew in hundreds of businessmen, researchers, journalists and officials from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Adding to the Qataris’ swagger is the feeling that self-inflicted wounds by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have given Qatar an advantage. The murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul has tarnished the kingdom’s reputation, and the United Arab Emirates are still dealing with the fallout over their conviction of a British graduate student on spying charges in a trial that British officials said had no basis.
Foreign Minister Thani said that the Khashoggi killing lifted the veil on Saudi Arabia’s “impulsive” leadership.
“The world is starting to see what Qatar has seen for the last 18 months” he said.