Arriving in Doha as the fierce Shamal winds whipped up a fog of sand and dust across the city, the metaphor was striking. Just days earlier, while international attention was focused firmly on Russian movements in Ukraine, the Persian Gulf had quietly been rocked by its largest diplomatic storm in recent years.
For some time political barometers had signalled a localised build-up of pressure. Under the previous Emir, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Doha’s overt support for a range of subversive groups across the Middle East – from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Al Nusra Front in Syria – had caused severe irritation for its authoritarian GCC neighbours. Al Jazeera’s foreign policy tub-thumping did nothing to help the situation, nor did Qatar’s decision to harbour a number of vocal Islamist exiles, most notably Egyptian preacher Yousef Al Qaradawi.
On taking over from his father in mid-2013, Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani signalled a desire to “reassess” the situation, but foreign policy, like so much of Qatari politics, has for months cruised in the same direction, apparently on auto-pilot. In November 2013, Tamim gave an undertaking to the GCC to avoid compromising the group’s security through interference in the internal affairs of other states, but by the point of a tense meeting in Riyadh at the beginning of March 2014, seemingly little had changed. On 5th March, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE officially withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar.
On the ground in Doha, the mood was as ambivalent as the official response to the withdrawals. Locals seemed confident the country would manage fine without the presence of these diplomats, just as it had for several years after Saudi Arabia last recalled its ambassador, in protest at the 1995 palace coup. In fact, rumours were that the Saudi ambassador hadn’t even physically left the country, and that Bahrain’s had said that “he would be back in a week’s time”. The UAE, it seemed, hadn’t even sent an ambassador to replace the one that left Doha in December 2013 at the end of his posting. Most expatriate journalists and political experts in the city were also inclined to believe that the furore would eventually calm down on its own.
There was, however, another common concern. Riyadh is known to be particularly displeased with Qatar, and several expatriate observers saw credibility in rumours that Saudi Arabia is preparing to close its borders with Qatar. As one walks the streets of Doha, it is clear that there is still huge momentum behind construction efforts. Every spare plot of land in the West Bay area, for example, has been turned into a building site. There is no shortage of funding for these projects, and the armies of foreign workers bussed in daily ensure that manpower is abundant. The supply of construction materials, on the other hand, is struggling to match demand. Concrete, in particular, is increasingly difficult to source. Virtually all materials must be imported over land via Saudi Arabia, and with much work already to be done on infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup, not to mention the stadia themselves, closure of the Saudi border could prove more than just a minor inconvenience.