AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE: Qatar's year of isolation

Source: Agence France-Presse

Agence France-Presse issued the following announcement on June 6.

If you must live in a country cut off by much bigger and powerful neighbours, with its main food supplies stopped overnight, threatened (maybe) with invasion and being turned into the world’s newest island (definitely), then it may as well be one of the world’s richest countries, Qatar.

From its start 12 months ago, the Gulf Crisis has been a mixture of bewilderment, ridiculousness, absurdity and comedy - but despite all that, genuine human cost.

It's taken in 12,000 camels, 14,000 cows, bad songs, Neymar, lots of fake news, Iranian cabbages, Chinese steel, the FBI, Jared Kushner, at least two TV stations, currency manipulation claims, and a dance-off outside Harrods in London.

Qatari men herd camels in a desert area on the Qatari side of the Abu Samrah border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Qatar on June 21, 2017. Around 12,000 camels and sheep have become the latest victims of the Gulf diplomatic crisis, being forced to trek back to Qatar from Saudi Arabia, a newspaper reported Tuesday. (AFP / Karim Jaafar)

Covering it as a journalist has been just as bizarre.

Previously silent ministries suddenly picked up phones, introduced themselves and offered interviews with officials you knew were there but had no definitive prior proof of their existence. Qatar, long a scourge of rights groups, was suddenly telling the world it was the victim.

A personal favourite happened on a visit to what was for just a few days one of the world's most talked about closed borders, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Everything was quiet, nothing stirred, not even a lost camel, only for the embargo to be shattered by a cheerful Saudi farmer who had somehow driven his truck into Qatar to pick up items for his wife from her family on the other side of the frontier. Then he drove back toward Saudi Arabia. He may have been the last person to have passed through the still closed border.

A man puts on a car a sticker portraying Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani outside a shop in the capital Doha on June 11, 2017. (AFP / Karim Jaafar)

The shutters came down on Qatar on the morning of June 5, 2017, accused by Saudi Arabia and others of backing groups like Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood as well as courting Iran.

Within hours people panic shopped, stripping shelves of the big French supermarkets bare. Despite the embargo, they were quickly refilled.

And then, by about 10pm on June 5, 2017, life just returned to pretty much normal.

My brother What'sApped me the night the crisis broke and asked me if I had anything to eat. I was munching on a chicken shawarma overlooking a marina full of million dollar yachts at the time. I replied, red-faced, that I was 'surviving' though didn't mention I was also eyeing the chocolate fountain in the restaurant.

A general view of the Doha port, June, 2017. (AFP / Str)

And that's the way it has been for the past year -- not chocolate fountains, but a bizarre and reassuring sense of normality.

Everything quickly settled into a strange calm. The crisis is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

It is certainly never far away in a conversation. Do you think it will end soon? What do you think will happen? Will they lose the World Cup? And the clincher: will Saudi invade, usually followed by a self-conscious laugh?

Qatar National Day celebrations in Doha, December, 2009. (AFP / Karim Jaafar)

Rather than standing on the sidelines, large sections of Qatar's huge expat population spontaneously came out in support for the country's rulers, surprising everyone including delighted Qataris, in a country where previously nationalities rarely mixed.

But beyond that life apparently goes on as normal.

Drivers still tailgate, influential Qataris lunch at the Four Seasons (outside Ramadan, of course), Filipinos pack the market bearing their name around Souq Waqif, the mobile phone shops of Al-Jaidah still bustle with activity, Westerners gorge on booze and food at weekly brunches in five-star hotels on Fridays, the same day Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans take to any patch of spare land to play cricket.

Malls are still busy, new roads open, new World Cup stadiums are close to finishing, Paris Hilton flies in to DJ at the Mondrian, Doha's "first bespoke hotel'.

Qatar is a country seemingly unbothered by events elsewhere.

We can survive this, assure officials, everything is fine. Qatar is doing ok, Qatar is resilient, Qatar is thriving, Qatar doesn't need anyone else, we've got enough money for anything, don't worry.

But if you look closely, you can spot the crisis.

Traditional dhow boats off the south eastern coast of Qatar, April, 2015. (AFP / David Harding)

Cafes close without warning or a reason, most people know someone who has lost a job, from public relations professionals to people working in energy and aviation, taxi drivers talk about heading home to Kerala in India, companies go bust leaving unpaid wages, construction workers complain about lack of overtime, parents complain about rising school fees, food prices creep up, rents go down as more and more empty homes become available.

And although some may sneer, Qatar's wealth has not protected its citizens from paying a genuine human price because of the crisis.

Families have been split and forcibly told which side of the divide to live on. People talk sadly about friendships and trust broken forever, about having to decide which parent to live with, or facing the prospect of leaving the country they’ve lived in since birth. Take Rashed.

Cafes in Souq Waqif in Doha, March, 2010. (AFP / Patrick Baz)

The 22-year-old has lived in Qatar all his life. His mother is Qatari and his father from Bahrain, but the parents split up when Rashed was six and he and his two sisters have lived with their mother in Qatar ever since. They’ve visited Bahrain four times to see family. Because Qatari law doesn’t allow a mother to pass on her Qatari citizenship, Rashed is officially Bahraini. Before, this didn’t matter, as citizens of the six energy-rich Gulf states could live and work in any one they chose. But with the crisis, Rashed is facing some tough choices. If he stays in Qatar, he could lose his Bahraini passport and become stateless. If he goes to Bahrain, he leaves behind his family and the place where he grew up.

Talk to Qataris and there is genuine hurt that countries and people with which they share culture, religion, heritage and deep family ties have chosen to cut them off.

They’ll tell you of the shock of suddenly being shunned publicly outside the region by fellow Khaleejis (those from the Gulf), even how people have asked to move seats after discovering they are sitting next to a Qatari at international conferences.

Beyond the politics and the wealth, Qataris seem personally hurt by what's happened and that may be an enduring legacy of the crisis.

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