On the 23rd May 2017, I awoke to a bazing stream of WhatsApp messages from my colleagues in the oyce of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser; the mother of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Overnight, a bizarre story had appeared on the Qatari national news agency (QNA) website citing Sheikh Tamim as having harshly criticised Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while praising Iran and Hamas. It was immediately obvious that something was amiss. The QNA news agency is a de facto conduit of government information from the state ministries, that feeds directly to state-approved newspapers. For the agency to publish a single word that didn’t strictly adhere to government lines raised an enormous red flag.
The hacking of QNA and the plant of an inflammatory story served as the trigger to unleash an almighty and highly public political and economic blockade, led by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.
As the walls of the embargo fell that June, the consequences became immediately obvious to Doha’s two million inhabitants. As Declan Walsh wrote in the New York Times:
“Overnight, aeroplanes and cargo ships bound for Qatar were forced to change course, diplomatic ties were severed, and Qatar’s only land border, a 65km stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia, slammed shut.”
Over 90% of Qatari imports had previously come through the land border. The once abundant supply of milk and chicken ended abruptly, and many people stockpiled – supermarket shelves were bare. Thousands of inter-city commuters, used to taking a 45-minute shuttle into Dubai, were now faced with an expensive seven or eight-hour journey via Oman or Kuwait. Border lines tore families apart, with people unable to travel between Qatar and its hostile neighbours. At the Qatar Foundation, I met Bahraini students under orders to abandon their studies and return home, as well as frantic expats whose life possessions were stuck in storage; banned from entering a neighbouring port. Stories began to circulate of Qatari pilgrims performing Umrah being hounded out of Saudi Arabia, and others being refused entry for Hajj. Even Qatari camels grazing just over the Saudi border were forcibly expelled. It was hard to find anyone whose life was untouched by this disruption and uncertainty.
The coalition’s demands
Two weeks after imposing the boycott, the blockading countries issued a list of 13 demands that Qatar should adhere to if sanctions were to be lifted, including permanently closing the news network Al Jazeera; demobilising a Turkish military base; and cutting all ties with Iran. They also demanded an unspecified sum of money in ‘compensation’ and insisted on annual monitoring and compliance checks. In Doha’s view, the demands amounted to handing over control of its entire foreign policy agenda.
On 1 July 2017, Qatar wholly rejected the demands, saying that they “constitute[d] an attack on Qatar’s sovereignty”. From that moment on, a costly PR battle has been waged – as much in the media networks of Washington and beyond as in the newspapers of the Persian Gulf. Today, there appears to be no end in sight
to the stalemate. The blockade still stands; Qatar has left the Saudi dominated oil cartel Opec; and Saudi Arabia plans to spend $750 million to cut ox the Qatari peninsula by building a nuclear waste-lined canal along its border.
For a country previously so closely tied to its neighbours, how has Qatar survived this prolonged isolation?
Although the blockade was costly for Qatar, the initial economic free-fall has now stabilised. Imports are arriving from a more diverse array of countries and the peninsula is now home to its own herd of dairy cows, air-freighted from Western countries after the blockade.
However, perhaps more importantly, have Qatar’s PR exorts paid ox in terms of persuading the global community that the coalition’s actions were more about persecution and less about principles?
Historically, Qatar was not accustomed to unsolicited external media attention or having to answer for its domestic policies. Despite this, the award of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010 meant the country found itself the subject of some harsh criticism, particularly around foreign workers’ rights and living conditions.
Subsequently they have stepped up attempts to control foreign media activity.
A reluctance to court media attention continued when Sheikh Tamim ascended to the throne in 2013. Tamim refocused foreign policy on GCC relations and generally things were quiet on the media front: “In striking contrast with his father’s rule, who had prioritized Qatar’s international profile, a new focus on domestic axairs has characterized Tamim’s government”.
This lasted only until June 2017, when the boycott thrust the country back into the spotlight. Staying quiet was no longer an option: Qatar had to go on the oxensive or risk having its reputation spoken for by its neighbours.
Taking the initiative
Since the outbreak of the GCC crisis in 2017, the country has deftly used PR as a diplomatic tool. To date, they have spent an estimated $1.5 billion on various PR exorts.
Their approach is simple – judiciously selecting media outlets with the widest reach among global elites. The recently formed Government Communications Oyce devotes whole sections to the crisis on its new website, where readers can access interviews, statements, letters to editors and op-eds in publications like the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and the Times of London. The site’s factsheets describe in detail Qatar’s policies to fight terrorism, including education and employment initiatives, in an attempt to counteract the accusations of its neighbours.
In October 2017, the Emir Sheikh Tamim made an exceptional appearance on the American CBS show ‘60 Minutes’ with Charlie Rose to talk about the crisis. He claimed that the cutting of ties was “a shock” and that Qatar was open to talks, but was not willing to give up its sovereignty.
Despite this, the PR campaign goes far beyond the Emir. Ministers, spokespeople and family members are also going forth to extol the virtues of the country’s education system, opportunities for women, and charitable ventures. It’s not just what they say, but the image they paint.
Even at the previous height of Qatar’s fame in 2010-2012, the country’s elite were reluctant to agree to interviews on camera, or speak to less-than-friendly media outlets. However, even that has begun to change. In January 2019, Sheikha Hind Al Thani, sister of the Emir and CEO of the Qatar Foundation, appeared on Bloomberg in a business suit and hair uncovered, talking about the role of women in her country’s economic transformation. A few months earlier she gave an interview to the traditionally hostile Guardian newspaper about the impacts of the blockade. Even Sheikha Moza herself gave her second ever televised interview earlier this year, to Al Jazeera.
High profile, high stakes
In continued exorts to show that it will not be bullied into global isolation, Qatar has not spared any exorts – or money – to highlight its recent cultural achievements.
The Qatar National Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, opened its doors to much fanfare in 2018. This year, the Qatar Foundation has relaunched the previously defunct televised ‘Doha Debates’ as a way to “tackle the gross injustices around us”. Most recently, in March 2019, a host of celebrities flew into Doha for the unveiling of the Jean Nouvel-designed Qatar National Museum. Intended to look like a desert rose, the museum was 18 years in the making – sending a clear signal to Qatar’s neighbours about the concern of Qatari heritage and its lack of cash flow problems.
A cult of personality
Inside the country, despite his rare public appearances, a cult of personality quickly emerged around Sheikh Tamim. A local artist’s sketch of the Emir, accompanied with the words ‘Tamim al-majd’ (“Tamim the glorious”) in Arabic, quickly became the symbol of Qatari nationalism. It can be seen across the country; adorning cars, walls and even exhibitions.
However, loyalty needed to be fostered not just among locals, but among the 90% of the population made up of expatriates. The government opened up permanent residency rights for a limited number of foreigners, which gives them access to generous welfare and commercial rights, and made changes to the muchcriticised kafala system for foreign workers. Moreover, with the sudden drop in visitor numbers from the quartet countries, Qatar needed to open up more widely to tourism. It quickly relaxed visa rules, becoming one of the easiest countries to visit in the region.
Almost two years on from the start of the Gulf crisis surrounding Qatar, the country has it all to play for. In little over two years it will be hosting the FIFA World Cup, along with an estimated 200,000 football fans from around the world.
With little sign of the crisis abating, it remains to be seen whether Emiratis, Saudis, Egyptians and Bahrainis will be among them – or watching from the sidelines. Qataris had to do just this at the 2019 Asian Cup, when Qatari fans were banned from attending and its players were subjected to abuse. This type of action by the quartet partners may be proving an own-goal in the PR battle – to stem the bleeding, Qatar’s top diplomat has
gone on record to say that in contrast to the Asian Cup fans from the blockading nations will be welcome at the World Cup.
Nonetheless, the ongoing war and humanitarian disaster in Yemen are testing the patience of the international community, while the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi further aggravated Washington:
“The result is that it’s the countries of the quartet, rather than Qatar, that have suxered the most significant reputational setbacks.”
As for Qatar, its renewed focus on public relations appears to be reaping rewards. President Trump hosted Sheikh Tamim in April 2018, and Washington has been pressuring Riyadh to end the boycott. With none of the quartet’s original list of 13 demands being met and little pressure outside Washington to halt the standox, it remains to be seen whether Doha’s PR investment will pay ox, or as some observers predict, the blockading governments will renew their determination to make Qatar pay.