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.”
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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.”
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.”
Qatar has dismissed charges that it funds terrorism, saying they are a ploy for regional dominance by its neighbors. Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani has said his nation is combating the financing of extremist groups and has received praise. The government has hired the law firm of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to defend it. While there have been offers to mediate, it’s unclear how the standoff will end, with some analysts raising the prospect of regime change in Qatar. Signs of opulence are evident from the moment you set foot in Doha’s cavernous, shiny airport. The lamp-posts that line the highway leading to it are works of art, decorated with laser-cut stainless steel cladding that’s inscribed with the Qatari national anthem in Arabic calligraphy.
Most Qatari women wear black abaya full-length cloaks, but unlike in Saudi Arabia, they can drive, often wearing niqab face covers behind the wheel. Alcohol is tolerated. Churches are allowed, albeit behind walls and barbed wire in a “religious complex” half an hour’s drive from downtown Doha and without anything to identify them as places of worship. People in the glitzy metropolis were reticent to talk about what’s happening. Among those who did, some said they’re realizing how fortunate they have been.
“We just happened to be lucky, being in this country, living the life everyone in the world wants to live,” said Nawar Al-Mutlaq, 26, an artist who co-hosted the show with Al-Semaitt this week at an old fire house converted into a gallery. “It’s not something that we worked hard for.” This crisis “is going to be an eye opener for even the young generation to see that nothing lasts,” she added. Eye-watering wealth came to Qatar about two decades after Saudi Arabia got rich from selling oil, and when it did, it really did. But that still leaves a generation who remembers leaner times.
Nasser Al Khori, 28, said his grandfather lived through the years when Qatar’s pearl industry, the mainstay at the time, was decaying. He likes to remind his grandchildren of the times Qatar had nothing, and recounts how they used to grind date stones to make bread. “Even though the crisis has exposed Qatar’s fragility, it has also exposed another area of Qatar’s strength that nobody really saw,” said Al Khori, who’s in charge of partnerships for schools at Qatar Foundation, which focuses on education and science. Qataris are coming together in an unprecedented way, he said.
At the Fire Station Gallery, Al-Semaitt and Al-Mutlaq explained to their guests what their show, part of a bigger exhibit by Qatari and other artists, was all about. The two artists deconstructed a five-pound riyal and turned each shape and image into a work of art to show how Qatar has come to presume its riches are taken as a given, said Al-Semaitt. At least the current predicament has some positives, though, she said.“The strength and how this crisis has brought us together has made us appreciate more the blessing we live in in our country,” said Al-Semaitt. “We should learn from the past, plan for our future, but embrace the moment.”
Now it’s a question of what that moment will bring.“The policy mix that Qatar has adopted over the last decade, but especially the last few years, was eventually going to be problematic—it wasn’t sustainable,” said Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group. “The combination of all the policies it has adopted was bound to become problematic at some point.”