How Saudi Arabia’s canal plans could backfire

Thanks to its rift with neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Qatar could soon find itself an island nation, should the rumours that the kingdom intends to construct a 60-kilometer canal along the border between the two countries come to fruition.

Although the plans have yet to be confirmed by Riyadh, media reports claim that a number of companies have already been invited to tender for a project dubbed the ‘Salwa Channel’, with an ambitious budget – and an even more ambitious construction schedule. Costs are expected to top SR2.8 billion ($745 million).

If completed, the canal would further isolate Qatar – geographically as well as politically – from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, following the severing of ties between the two factions last June.

Extending the Gulf blockade hasn’t been plain sailing so far

The extraordinary canal project is the latest in a series of Saudi-led initiatives intended to punish Qatar for its alleged state sponsorship of terrorist groups in the region – allegations Qatar strenuously denies. Among its other recent moves, Saudi guards have seized control of the Salwa border crossing, effectively cutting off Qatar’s only land link, while Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has reportedly threatened military action should Qatar go ahead with plans to install a Russian air defence system.

Yet, despite Saudi’s sabre-rattling, there’s no sign of an end to the dispute; rather, evidence is growing that Riyadh’s strategy is beginning to backfire – to the benefit of Doha.

After twelve months of enduring what has been dubbed the ‘Qatar crisis’, reports suggest that not only has the tiny emirate revitalised its flagging financial situation but has also taken the opportunity to polish up its human rights record. Contrary to Saudi expectations, there doesn’t appear to be any sign that the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani is in any hurry to capitulate to Saudi demands.

Qatar’s economy is rebounding

The Qatari economy in particular has seen a dramatic turnaround from the early days of the crisis, which were marked by panic over the possibility of food shortages and a potential Saudi invasion. Then, Qatar had to turn to allies in Turkey and Iran for supplies as imports plummeted by 40 percent of their previous levels.

Now, daily life has largely returned to normal, thanks to the government’s determination to explore new trade routes, while providing state support to banks and helping to boost domestic production of certain essential goods such as dairy products. Qatar is also looking to expand its production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in partnership with Iran.

Qatar’s progress is impressive by any metric: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the country’s economy to grow by 2.6 percent this year – up from 2.1 percent in 2017, while the country’s fiscal deficit has also narrowed as a percentage of GDP.

Riyadh risks antagonizing Western stakeholders

In addition to the unexpected economic effects of the blockade, there is also the potential for blowback from key partners that are growing increasingly weary of the protracted dispute. Indeed, a year in from the start of sanctions, Saudi Arabia in particular is in the tricky position of wanting to punish Qatar while still maintaining positive relations with key Western allies – notably the UK, France and the US – all of whom would like to see an end to the friction, given their own political and commercial interests in the Gulf.

The good news story in Saudi Arabia at the moment is the announcement that women have been given the right to drive for the first time in three decades. Marked by a ribbon-cutting ceremony and lauded by Western publications like the Economist, the repeal of the driving ban has made for great headlines – though a number of prominent female activists who have been campaigning for a change in the law are still languishing in jail, suggesting that the repeal is hardly a resounding victory for women’s rights.

Nor is Saudi Arabia’s ongoing involvement in the Yemen conflict helping its cause. According to the UN’s latest Children and Armed Conflict report, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 370 of the 552 child deaths in Yemen in 2017. The UN has repeatedly criticised the coalition for the high number of civilian casualties resulting from its airstrikes.

Qatar – slow yet real progress on reforms

Qatar has attracted its own share of criticism for human rights abuses, especially in relation to its ‘kafala’ sponsorship system for foreign labourers. As the emirate prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, the system has come under renewed scrutiny, with repeated calls to boycott the tournament over the high number of worker deaths that have occurred during the construction of new stadiums.

Yet there are small signs of progress: in its World Report 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) credits Qatar for reforms designed to improve labour standards for both domestic and migrant workers. In August, the Emir ratified Law No. 15 on domestic workers, which grants them protections including a maximum 10-hour shift, three weeks of annual leave, and healthcare benefits. Two months later, the International Trade Union Confederation announced that Qatar had agreed to extensive reforms of the kafala system. Of course, details are still lacking on how certain measures will be implemented, but such initiatives would be ground-breaking in a region where migrant workers make up such a large proportion of the labour force.

Meanwhile, as Qatar enacts reforms at home, the Gulf dispute rumbles on. In the latest development, Qatar has taken the UAE to the International Court of Justice, alleging discrimination as Qataris have been unable to visit family members in the Emirates due to the boycott. A provisional ruling is expected within the next few months. As the Qatari crisis enters the next phase, there’s no indication that either side is ready to concede. However, unless Saudi Arabia can change the narrative, the protracted blockade may end up being a blessing in disguise, not only for the Qatari economy but also for the civil liberties of its residents.

Samantha Maloof
Samantha Maloof
Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa