Gulf Showdown Exposes Qatar’s Fragility – Bloomberg

 In World
At her new exhibition in Doha, Qatari artist Maryam Al-Semaitt explained to guests the central message of her latest work: what happens when great wealth is taken for granted.

That money, mainly from selling natural gas from a peninsula in the Gulf desert that was a British protectorate until 1971, has paid for the city’s skyscrapers, hotels and investments in some of the world’s most iconic companies, buildings and sports teams. What it can’t do, she said, is provide a shield for what’s now the world’s richest nation.

The showdown with Gulf neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has exposed the precarious position of Qatar. The soft power of the multi-billion-dollar Qatar brand that was meant to protect it has never looked more fragile. Doha’s isolation, cutting it off from diplomatic and transport links, is heading into a third week.

“The fact that we have always taken safety for granted, security for granted, now we’re questioning these kinds of things,” said Al-Semaitt, 27, on the second day of showing her sculptures and images done with another artist. The point is to highlight, she said, how “we never actually stop and appreciate what we have in our lives until we lose it.”

Qatari artist Maryam Al-Semaitt stands in front of her work at the Fire Station Gallery in Doha on June 12.

Photographer: Donna Abu-Nasr/Bloomberg

At the crux of Qatar’s predicament is its refusal to toe the line drawn by more powerful neighbors. It adopted the ultra-conservative Saudi strain of Islam, though a lighter version, and as its economy boomed, foreign policy diverged. Though Qataris and their emir remain defiant, the question is how to sustain an almost paradoxical existence.

Take foreign policy. Qatar has hosted a U.S. air base since the early 2000s while maintaining close ties to Islamist groups. According to the Saudis and Emiratis, it funds jihad while its $335 billion sovereign wealth fund has stakes in global companies from German carmaker Volkswagen AG to Glencore and Barclays Plc. In 2022, Qatar is due to host the World Cup, the showpiece global soccer tournament.

“The Qatar brand was about producing security and legitimacy,” said Samer Shehata, an associate professor at the politics and international relations program at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. “It was about putting Qatar on the map so everybody knew what Qatar was, who Qatar is and the importance of Qatar. It became visible.”

“But in the end what does soft power get you?” he added. “Can it produce security? The current crisis exposes this question. I’m not sure soft power by itself is enough, especially if you live in a bad neighborhood.”

Passengers at Hamad International Airport in Doha.

Photographer: Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Qatar’s alternative path goes back to when the British Empire was in its final death throes. It had been a protectorate since the Ottomans were defeated during World War I and the dominant Al Thani family agreed to cede control in return for security. The early energy industry brought in revenue in the 1950s and 1960s before the nation decided to go it alone rather than join what became the U.A.E. as another emirate.

For sure, income from a giant gas field has allowed Qatar to extend its influence beyond money. With per-capita income of $130,000, more than twice Saudi Arabia, it supported Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party outlawed by its two Sunni Gulf neighbors, and opposed efforts to isolate Shiite rival Iran.

Its Al Jazeera satellite television channel has broadcast messages from al-Qaeda and supported dissidents against Arab dictators. Over the years, it enraged Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian leaders who have often stopped its transmissions and kicked out its staff.

“Qatar cannot own stakes in the Empire State Building and the London Shard and use the profits to write checks to affiliates of al-Qaeda,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the U.A.E. ambassador to the U.S., wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week. “It cannot plaster its name on soccer jerseys while its media networks burnish the extremist brand. It cannot be owners of Harrods and Tiffany & Co. while providing safe haven to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

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