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Qatar Boycott Through the Lens of Human Rights

On June 5th of 2017, Qatar was left isolated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Arab Republic of Egypt. Mainly motivated by disdain for Qatar’s alleged support of Islamist groups and the its relations with Iran, the Gulf and Arab states severed diplomatic relations, closed airspaces to Qatari aircrafts, banned Qatari ships from docking at ports and, with the exception of Egypt, allowed Qatari nationals living in the aforementioned Gulf states as few as 14 days to move back to Qatar. The boycott of Qatar has now lasted nearly 11 months. In November 2017, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) travelled to Qatar with the purpose of investigating potential human rights breaches led to by the international blockade. The OHCHR Technical Mission to the State of Qatar Report was soon thereafter published, illustrating the mixed bag of social, economic and psychological consequences the Qatar Crisis has produced.

The impact of the boycott

The freedoms most affected by the Qatar boycott may be said to be the freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom of religion. It is by no means accurate to argue that the ramifications and consequences of the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt stretch no farther than the impact upon the lives of Qatari nationals. Indeed, the OHCHR has identified four categories of victims of the crisis[1]:

  • Qatari individuals residing in boycotting states who felt compelled to rapidly exit these countries, “leaving behind their family, businesses, employment, property, or being forced to interrupt their studies.”[2]

  • Nationals of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain residing in Qatar who felt compelled to return to their country of origin which consequently separated them from their families, businesses and property.

  • Migrant workers and their families who have, because of the restricted freedom of movement, begun to face harsher economic realities of closed borders.

  • Populations of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain as a consequence of restricted freedom of movement and curtailment of “social, civil and cultural rights”[3].

One of the concerns the OHCHR Technical Mission to the State of Qatar Report signals is the direction in which the governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain have altered media expression in their respective states with regards to Qatar. The Report finds that media professionals in Qatar have identified “at least 1,120 press articles and some 600 anti-Qatar caricatures […] published in [Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain] between June and October 2017.”[4] Among these articles the Qataris found calls for a coup d’etat in Qatar as well as support of attacks on Qatar. This propaganda behemoth has also been stretched to cover the entertainment sector, with media companies producing songs by popular artists with an overtly anti-Qatari message[5]. The anti-Qatari sentiment in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain has gone as far as the governments of the respective nations warning citizens that expressions of empathy for Qatar may be met with criminal sanctions.[6] Naturally, the psychological impact of these freedom of expression restrictions as well as the effect of the strengthened anti-Qatari propaganda machine may place many nationals of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, many of whom are married to Qataris, in difficult positions.

Undoubtedly, the blockade of air, sea and land borders has had a dire effect on a country such as Qatar. Not only has the restriction of freedom of movement had a socio-economic impact on migrant workers who have found themselves restricted and, in some cases, isolated from either their business or family, the blockade has had predicted to have a stark geo-economic impact; “Qatar is estimated to import 90% of its food. 30% of that is imported from Saudi Arabia and UAE.”[7] With major import links gone, Qatar was in a position where it had to become more independent and more self-reliant. Surprisingly, Reuters reports[8]:

“Qatar’s banking system has recovered from initial outflows and the economy is expected to grow 2.6 percent this year […] The boycott hurt second-quarter GDP but Qatar, the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas, responded by developing new trade routes, depositing state money in its banks and helping local firms to develop domestic output of some goods.”

New-found methods of staying economically afloat have been one unexpected benefit of the Qatar blockade. The lack of legal motivation and the lack of formal communication regarding the clampdown of freedom of movement however has led to “an immediate impact on various human rights.”[9] The OHCHR points to rights such as the freedom of religion being impacted; “[the blockade] was imposed in the midst of Ramadan and the Hajj pilgrimage.”[10] Naturally, such implications have notably dire consequences for the enjoyment of family life. Furthermore, it has been reported that freedom of movement restrictions will separate families. It must, however, be noted that, interestingly, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain pledged “that Qataris married to their own citizens will be exempt from the [order to leave]”[11] on humanitarian grounds. The National explains that the motivation behind this exemption is rooted in the fact that “[i]ntermarriage between citizens of [the Gulf Cooperation Council] states is routine, and family and tribal connection both precede the creation of the six countries and continue today.”[12]

Whilst freedoms of expression, movement and religion have been affected, other rights, such as the right to education, have also been impacted. The Ministry of Higher Education of Qatar, for example, has found that approximately 3,251 students from the boycotting nations have been affected, whilst “201 Qatari students were not able to pursue their studies, mainly due to the lack of transcripts, different credit systems or because their specialization is not available in Qatar.”[13] This finding goes to show clearly that the impact of the Qatari blockade does not stop at Qatari nationals; the people of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, notably students, have been forced to stop in their tracks.

The future of the boycott

A helpful litmus test of what direction matters regarding the blockade may be heading in is the diplomatic attitude of the United States. Indeed, at the time of initial breakout of the blockade, President Trump took an antagonistic approach to Qatar[14]. This seemed rather counter-intuitive considering that “Qatar is home to one of the largest US military bases in the Middle East […] located in Al-Udeid and […] home to 10,000 US military personnel.”[15] Since then, however, President Trump has changed his stance on Qatar. The Guardian proposes that it may be in the interest of the US for the dispute to finish. The longer the dispute may go on for, the closer Qatar may be driven to Iran; “The US would prefer a united Gulf willing to challenge Iran over its nuclear ambitions and foreign policy.”[16]

Many of the affected will undoubtedly wonder what comes next. It has been reported that “Gulf states are studying plans to break the deadlock over the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar by persuading the two sides to agree to relax restrictions on civilian movements as the first step to a wider deal.”[17] It remains to be seen what action is taken by the states involved. It is becoming evidently clear, however, that the longer the dispute goes on, the more impact it has on the enjoyment of human rights of nationals involved.

Matt Wojcik

International Law Feature Writer

7th June, 2018


[1] OHCHR ‘Report On the impact of the Gulf Crisis on human rights’ (Qatar 17-24 November 2017), p.5.

[2] n (1).

[3] n (1).

[4] n (1), p. 6.

[5] n (4).

[6] n (4).

[7] BBC, ‘Qatar Crisis: What you need to know’ (BBC, 19 July 2017) <> Accessed 28 April 2018.

[8] Reuters Staff, ‘Economic, financial impact on Qatar from boycott is fading: IMF’ (Reuters, 5 March, 2017) <> Accessed 29 April 2018.

[9] n (1), p 8.

[10] n 9.

[11] Haneen Dajani and Taimur Khan, ‘Saudi Arabia and the UAE exempt Qatari spouses caught in GCC crisis’ (The National, 11 June 2017) <> Accessed 30 April 2018.

[12] n (11).

[13] n (1), p. 13.

[14] Matt Wojcik, ‘Arab states extend Qatar’s deadline to meet Gulf demands by 48 hours’ (Legal Loop, 3 July 2017) <> Accessed 28 April 2018.

[15] n (14).

[16] Patrick Wintour, ‘Gulf states considering plans to bring end to Saudi-led Qatar boycott’ (The Guardian, 6 March 2018) <> Accessed 29 April 2018.

[17] n (16).

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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