As Qatar celebrated its National Day on Monday, it did so in the shadow of the ongoing blockade. Characterized by some as a “diplomatic crisis,” the Saudi-led blockade has far-reaching implications beyond diplomacy. In truth, it is a harsh, so far futile, attempt at regional hegemony by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Since the blockade started 198 days ago, Qataris have been left no choice but to reimagine the role they play in the region, both economically and culturally. With the Qatari government trying hard to maintain sovereignty and dignity, Turkey and Iran stood out as clear beneficiaries when it came to trade. Doha and Tehran are linked by a shared natural gas field and their relationship is one of Saudi Arabia’s chief irritants.
This entire mess does little to thwart Saudi Arabia into regional hegemony. Since June, it has spent extensively on weapons, launched a brutal war against Yemen, isolated entire echelons of Saudi elites, and sought to overthrow of Syria’s Assad regime. With all of that, Riyadh had no response prepared when Qatar dismissed Riyadh’s demands.
Blindly lending support to the four aggressors, I fear, will keep them pressing their demands longer by giving soft acquiescence to the hawks who govern them -- and who might one day want to send levy these demands elsewhere (say, Iran or Turkey). Blaming Saudi Arabia is a little too easy, however. The truth is that we now find ourselves in a region that is as divided as it ever has been. A group of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is indeed horrifying.
Beyond the Gulf, the very fabric of the Arab world is being eroded by sectarianism, fueling bigotry on an unprecedented scale. Such sentiments leave young people, such as Syrian architect Hadi Madwar asking whether they should ought to the past, with aspirations to revive the long lost splendor of their Arab heritage? Or address the future, with a more global perspective, seeking solutions to the wider issues that have stagnated the development of Arab society? Hadi notes “the individual and his society require harmonious identities. A sense of purpose ensures their mutual survival.” The current state of the region leaves little hope for new generations to revive said lost splendor and find common ground, wherever that might be.
It is not all grim however; one consequence of the blockade on Qatar has been the revival of the local arts scene. Galvanized and patriotic, young Qataris are using art as a way to communicate ideas with neighbors and the world. Beyond the viral portrait of the Qatari Emir, artists such as Sophia Al Maria, Ali Hassan, Wadha Al Sulaiti, and Lina Al Ali are seeing increased demand for their work from collectors in the region and beyond. Beyond individual artists, well-endowed institutions such as QM are highlighting hundreds by Qatari artists around the world, most recently focusing on Germany.
Another heavyweight player is the Barjeel Art Foundation, a Sharjah-based cultural institution that is subtly bridging the Arab world through acquiring and showcasing art. A simple, potent way of reminding us of the strong bonds that unite us— and indeed our “long-lost splendor”— is by collecting the works of Arab artists, and displaying them next to one another. If the region could have as much synergy as the pieces in Barjeel and QM’s repertoire, then we’d have surely done something right.
Art could indeed show Arabs across the region that we have more in common than hopelessly dividing us. We can show not just the Middle East, but the entire world, that we can be indeed be unified by more than religion, language or culture.