DOHA, Qatar — For signs of how Qatar has adapted to the blockade imposed by its neighbors, you need to go no further than the Al Meera grocery in a strip mall across from a mosque, 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 Qatari-made laundry detergent, dish soap and disinfectant.
Producing such products at home may be business as usual for many countries, but for Qatar it was one of many defensive shifts made to survive a political and economic assault by its neighbors.
Eighteen months after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a land and sea blockade aimed at bringing Qatar to heel, this tiny, gas-rich strip of sand jutting into the Persian Gulf is still refusing to capitulate. In the meantime, it has adapted, retooling its economy and foreign relations in ways that could reshape the strategic layout of the Persian Gulf.
Qatar has beefed up its military, pursued deeper ties with neighbors like Iran, and doubled down on the maverick behavior that rankled its Arab neighbors in the first place, like breathlessly 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 this weekend 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 type of restrictions imposed on Qatar by its larger and more powerful 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 a range of 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 of interference and financing terrorism, and say what really angered their neighbors was the country’s independence, its refusal to march in lock step with the Saudi and Emirati leaders who have long called the shots in the region.
The country’s vast wealth cushioned the blow of the blockade. Qatar dipped deeply into its $340 billion reserve funds to establish new trading partners, build up domestic industries and, in some cases, create new ones from scratch.
At the Doha Forum, an international conference in the Qatari capital, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, left, shared a stage with Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on Sunday.CreditNoushad Thekkayil/EPA, via Shutterstock
This month, Qatar announced that it was leaving OPEC, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel. And while it remains a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a body formed to promote unity among the Arab Gulf states, Qatar expects little from it. Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, declined to attend its summit meeting in Saudi Arabia this month, sending a junior official instead. Discussing ways to end the blockade was not on the agenda.
“It seems that the Qataris, the people as well as the government, have closed the door a bit on trying to get back into the G.C.C. at all costs,” said Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor of security studies at King’s College London. “They want to get this resolved, but the threshold for finding a solution to the crisis is very low.”
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, he said.
“Nothing else is itching or hurting them anymore,” he said. “The pain they thought they would feel they don’t feel.”
In a meeting with New York Times editors last month, Foreign Minister Thani said Qatar was no longer spending its reserves to adjust to the new reality.
“We are over the blockade,” he said, adding that, perversely, 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, cutting into the budgets of the foreign workers who make up 88 percent of the country’s 2.4 million people.
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 for the event. Lenín Moreno, the president of Ecuador, gave opening remarks, and Hassan Ali Khaire, the prime minister of Somalia, spoke on a panel. While previous editions of the conference featured speakers from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, this time Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran was given his own session.
Adding to the Qataris’ swagger is the feeling that self-inflicted wounds by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have given Qatar a free leg up. The murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul has tarnished the kingdom’s reputation in Washington, and the United Arab Emirates are still dealing with the fallout over its conviction of a British grad student, Matthew Hedges, 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.
Qatar’s foes have taken aim at Al Jazeera, demanding that Qatar take it off the air for its often critical coverage of Arab leaders and its sympathetic treatment of dissidents and political Islamists. But that demand has been a nonstarter, too.
“Al Jazeera continues its business as normal,” Abdulla al-Najjar, an executive at the channel, said in an interview.
The channel had been outlawed and blocked on digital platforms in the blockading countries, he said. But it is still widely watched across the Arab world, even in countries where it is banned, by viewers with VPNs.
“We speak truth to power,” Mr. Najjar said. “This is why most of the Middle Eastern governments don’t like us.”
Qatar’s biggest concern with the rift is security, which has led to increased investment in the military. Qatar recently extended mandatory military service to one year from three or four months for Qatari men and began allowing voluntary service for Qatari women. It has been buying top-of-the-line fighter jets from the United States, and is expanding Al Udeid, the largest American military base in the Middle East, which Qatar hosts.
For many Qataris, the biggest blows have been social and psychological, as they have come to terms with their closest neighbors branding them as enemies and waging a propaganda campaign against them.
“The biggest damage was to the social ties,” said Hizam al-Qahtani, a Qatari law student sitting down to a steak in the glitzy district of Pearl Qatar with three friends. All four had relatives on the other side of the blockade, they said. Some of the relatives had cut off all but basic communication, fearful of being accused of disloyalty by their governments. Others had cut off all contact, just to be safe.
Mr. Qahtani said that his uncle, a Saudi citizen, had died recently in Saudi Arabia and that none of his brothers, who are Qataris, were able to attend the funeral.
“He was buried there without his family present,” Mr. Qahtani said.
His friends complained that they could no longer easily travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for religious visits or to Dubai for fun. One said he had enrolled in a summer program at an Emirati university but lost his tuition payment of more than $4,000 when the blockade began.
Even if the crisis ended, the distrust would remain, they said.
“Even if it is solved, Qatari citizens won’t forget the betrayal that happened and the fierce media attacks,” said Abdulkarim al-Qahtani, also a law student. “We cannot forget.”