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Crisis in the Gulf: Qatar faces a stress test

Three decades ago, the modern brutalism of the Sheraton hotel defined the vista of Doha’s West Bay. Now the angular concrete structure nestles in the shadows of dozens of skyscrapers — a testament to the tiny peninsula’s rapid growth since the current emir’s father, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, modernised Qatar’s economy by borrowing big to become the world’s largest natural gas exporter.

The gas-rich state’s newfound wealth allowed the sheikh to launch Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s most influential media network, become a major patron of arts and education and nab the rights to host the football World Cup in 2022.

Its $335bn sovereign fund ploughed excess gas receipts into European corporate assets and real estate trophies, from the Shard and Canary Wharf in London to Paris Saint-Germain football club and Volkswagen in Germany. In the process, the Gulf state knit itself deeper into the fabric of global finance.

Qatar “carved out a separate path to escape from the Saudi shadow”, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “They took the lesson of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: if you have value to the international economy, you can mobilise partners to help.”

Years of taking sides in the tumultuous Arab spring revolts raised the ire of Qatar’s conservative neighbours. This week, they responded. Emboldened by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and three other Arab states launched an air and sea blockade to isolate Qatar, expelled its citizens from their countries and banned their own nationals from a country it accuses of backing terrorism and cozying up to Iran.

The worst Gulf crisis for decades has ignited a vicious war of words among Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, whose leaders have long emphasised brotherly ties of kinship, religion and governance.

Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, flatly rejects the accusations of terrorism, saying the “fake news” plot to besiege Doha is a form of collective punishment he would not expect even from an enemy.

“We are ready to talk if there are clear accusations, but are not ready to discuss intervention in our sovereignty,” he said.

Sheikh Mohammed warns that a failure to mediate the stand-off could disrupt the stability of the world’s mother lode of energy resources and rupture the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

If Qatar’s recent opening up of ties with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran, which was hit by two terrorist attacks this week, is one of the reasons for its recent isolation, the blockade is also pushing it further into the arms of the Islamic republic. Iran has offered to open its ports to keep food supplies flowing. Turkey is also deploying troops to a base in Qatar.

Qatar is dependent on strategic food reserves and needs to explore new shipping routes for the vessels that carry cargo into the country and the supertankers exporting its gas. Qatar Airways’ jets are avoiding Saudi and Emirati airspace, instead taking longer routes through Turkey to the west and Iran to the east.

Qataris now speak in hushed tones about local troop movements and reservist call-ups as concerns build about Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s intentions. “We feel like Kuwait ahead of the Iraqi invasion: this is a declaration of war by our neighbours,” said a senior Qatari business figure. “They are trying to suffocate us like we are North Korea.”