Qatar is restoring diplomatic ties with Iran, it announced today, in a move that will enrage the four neighbouring states with whom it has been locked in a bitter dispute for months.
The beleaguered state is sending an ambassador to Iran to resume full diplomatic duties, a development that showed its “aspirations to strengthen bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in all fields,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement.
Severing ties with Iran, along with cracking down on terrorism, reducing Turkey’s presence in the region and pulling the plug on the Al-Jazeera media network, was a key demand made of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in return for lifting an economic and travel embargo the states imposed in June.
Nervous times for Qatar’s huge expat community
Qatar has an enormous expat community, with only 300,000 of the 2.6 million people living there being Qatari nationals. A move to curry favour with the international community earlier in August by offering to extend residency rights for expats appears to have backfired, with observers dismissing the proposals as a PR stunt.
Iran, along with Turkey and Oman, has been a crucial ally as Qatar seeks to import materials for construction ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a coup that was intended to open up relations for the Emirate. Instead, it is facing increasing isolation in the region.
Doha has recalled its ambassador from Tehran under pressure from Riyadh and its Sunni allies when rampaging mobs destroyed Saudi property in the Iranian capital after Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric in early 2016.
Can Doha count on its business community’s support indefinitely?
Support from other allies notwithstanding, Qatar must be asking whether it can tolerate isolation among its Gulf state neighbours indefinitely.
Speaking to CNN last month, Mehran Kamrava (pictured left), an expert at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, said, “Qatar has a number of tools in its toolbox to withstand the pressure. For example, it’s got robust investments, it has healthy foreign reserves and now it is getting supplies – foodstuffs and other essential goods – from Turkey and Iran.”
Life for expats, however, might not be so resistant to this level of pressure, Kamrava said. “It’s the Qatari business community that is suffering,” he points out. “A business community that has multiple roots in places like Dubai and in Saudi Arabia, and I think that’s the critical point: how long will the business community in Qatar remain behind the government’s position?”