MATTERHORN MONTHLY / JAN 21
Qatar Operational Impact Report: January 2021
- Regional blockade of Qatar ends: travel will be significantly easier between GCC countries and flight times will be reduced as airspace opens, regional distrust and resentment will remain.
- Risk of conflict remains LOW: despite the assassination of Fakhrizadeh and the retaliatory proxy attack on Saudi ship and rocket attack on US Embassy in Baghdad, long-standing foreign policy differences remain most likely source of tensions
- Health risks remain MODERATE
- No increase in positive test rate means continued gradual relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions even before vaccine programme has begun;
- UK, US not yet on ‘green list’.
- Update to Law No 24 intended to improve foreign investor confidence
- Will be easier for foreign-owned businesses to bid on projects in Qatar.
WC 2022 Event Infrastructure
- Progress on Infrastructure: fourth stadium inaugurated on schedule
- Accommodation capacity still assessed as weak.
It is now possible to travel directly between all GCC countries meaning that a western business traveller, visiting both Doha and Abu Dhabi, for example, will be able to make the journey in 45 minutes, as opposed to the 3+ hours which were required before for transiting through Kuwait or Oman.
Despite the opening of land, sea and air borders between Qatar and its neighbours, due to the strict quarantine currently in place in Qatar and the requirement for a non-resident or citizen to obtain an Exceptional Entry Permit (EEP) prior to travel, there is unlikely to be a significant increase in traffic between Qatar and its neighbours in the near future.
Longer-term, the consequences of the ending of the blockade are more opaque. Given how effectively all ties were severed in June 2017 it will take time for any semblance of the previous situation to return, not least because of the deep mistrust which the event will have generated.
Economically, Qatar will benefit from the return of Saudi tourists who provided a lot of business to Qatari hotels. The ability of Saudis to travel to Qatar must now be factored into considerations for World Cup 2022 since this will mean extra strain on the already stretched accommodation options.
In terms of a wider economic impact, effective alternative supply chains for goods and materials have been established via Iran, Turkey, Kuwait and Oman, and Qatar has even become self-sufficient in certain areas of agriculture. There will be a certain reluctance to relinquish these links unless there is a highly compelling economic case for returning to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Given the speed with which the 2017 blockade was imposed, there is no guarantee that a similar event cannot happen in the future. At the onset of the blockade, Qatar was presented with a 13-point list of demands to which it was supposed to agree within 10 days. With the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration, all of these demands have been dropped. This means that although the most recent development may be seen as a significant diplomatic victory for Qatar, the casus belli of the original blockade remains unresolved.
The high-profile killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has the potential to be a destabilising event in the region. Given the modus operandi of the operation itself and the choice of target, it is highly likely that the killing was an Israeli-led operation with tacit approval from the US. It is moderately likely that the operation was given explicit US approval and operational support in the form of intelligence and logistics.
The assassination needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the US presidential election and the wider moves in the region to develop an alignment of powers against Iranian influence. Whilst the killing of Fakhrizadeh is unlikely to have a tangible effect on Iran’s physical ability to develop nuclear weapons, it may have other effects. In terms of the US presidential election, the assassination was likely intended to minimise the chance of a resurrection of the JCPOA (commonly known as the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’) under the Biden administration by prompting an angry reaction from Iran, be it a military or asymmetric retaliation or other measures. There is already an example of this with the passing on 01 December, 2020 of a bill by the Iranian parliament requiring the Iranian government to suspend nuclear inspections unless sanctions are lifted.
Whilst this bill will not change Iranian nuclear policy, which is set by the Supreme National Security Council, it may serve as a domestic constraint on future negotiations with US administrations.
The attack on a fuel transport ship in the port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 14 December may be viewed as an Iranian response to the strike on Fahkrizadeh. This attack likely originated from the Houthis in Yemen, a known Iranian proxy, and the modus operandi of targeting shipping related to the oil industry is well used by Iran. The Jeddah attack would be intended to demonstrate Iranian reach, since the city is so far from both Iran and Yemen, and in that sense it is a reciprocal response to the attack on Fahkrizadeh which took place in Absard, in the heart of Iran.
A significant barrage of at least 21 rockets was launched against the US Embassy in Baghdad on 23 December. This represents the largest such attack since 2010 although it resulted in no US casualties. It is likely that the attack originated from an Iranian-backed militia. The US has sought to downplay the incident, at first reporting only 8 rockets fired which suggests an attempt to deescalate the situation.
This incident, viewed alongside the Jeddah attack, provide further evidence of Iran’s preferred modus operandi for asserting itself: the use of proxy forces as opposed to its own uniformed military.
On 04 January 2021, Iran seized a South Korean flagged tanker citing concerns over ‘environmental pollution.’ The move is likely to be an attempt to pressure South Korea to release over $7Bn of assets frozen in South Korean banks. This action demonstrates another ongoing Iranian modus operandi which is to exploit the vulnerability of vessels transiting the Straits of Hormuz to achieve political goals.
Despite the inflammatory nature of the killing and the Iranian response, the chances of the incident triggering a regional conflict remain LOW. Iran knows that it must restrain its impulse to retaliate if it is to have any chance of resurrecting the JCPOA under the next administration. Furthermore, it is likely that both the killing of Qassem Soleimani on 03 Jan and the recent killing of Fakhrizadeh will have had a strong deterrent effect on the decision-making of Iran’s senior leadership since it is clear that even their most high-profile personnel are vulnerable.
The Abraham Accords which were signed on 15 September normalise relations between Israel and UAE and Israel and Bahrain. It should also be remembered that although it was not a signatory, Saudi Arabia has tacitly approved these accords and have even opened their airspace to flights travelling between Israel and the UAE. Importantly, the accords contain no reference to the conditionality of a Palestinian state.
The Abraham Accords may be viewed as part of Israel’s wider regional strategy to develop a bloc amongst Sunni Muslim states to counteract the ‘Shia crescent’ which is arguably in the ascendant.
In spite of the accords, Qatar is keen to maintain its neutrality in the region. One of the main consequences of the 2017 blockade was the warming of the relationship between Qatar and Iran. This relationship continues to contribute to the mistrust between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours.
Qatar also continues continued strong support for the Palestinian cause. This was most in evidence in the Amir of Qatar’s speech at the opening of the 49th Shura Council Session where he reaffirmed Qatar’s position on the Palestinian question:
“Concerning our region, we reaffirm our steadfast position regarding the just Palestinian cause and the legitimate rights of our Palestinian brothers, including the establishment of their independent state on the basis of 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution to the refugee issue, under international legitimacy resolutions.”
It is likely that this rhetoric was intended be perceived as a contrast to the regional trend of normalising relations with Israel.
Furthermore, HH Sheikh Tamim met with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas at the Amiri Diwan on 14 December and reaffirmed his commitment to Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Violations of Qatari airspace by Bahraini military aircraft are infrequent but occur on an annual basis. Given the ongoing Exercise EPIC SKIES, a joint training package between the RAF and Qatari Emiri Air Force, we assess this violation to be a direct response and may even be viewed as a type of limited ‘reconnaissance in force’.
Qatar’s winning of the 2030 Asian Games whilst a diplomatic coup for the country, will have done little to improve relations with its neighbours, particularly given that the key rival bid was from Riyadh, which lost with 10 votes to Doha’s 27 in the ballot held in Oman on 16 December.
The risk of regional conflict remains a distant one but it is elevated from INSIGNIFICANT to LOW based on our assessment methodology.
Qatar has compiled a ‘Green List’ of countries deemed to be low risk from COVID-19. Travellers entering Qatar from the ‘Green List’ are required to undergo an initial COVID-19 test at Hamad International Airport and then spend a week in home quarantine, after which they will be required to undergo a second COVID-19 test. Travellers from non- ‘Green List’ countries are required to undergo a week’s quarantine in a government-designated hotel at their own expense (approximately 1000 GBP), after which they must undertake a COVID-19 test. The UK is currently not on the ‘Green List’.
Due to the recent announcements of a ‘mutant’ strain of the virus being discovered in the UK, UK travellers must now undergo hotel quarantine is one of two specially assigned quarantine hotels. Demand is currently very high with a waiting list of a minimum of one month. There are unconfirmed reports that capacity for quarantining UK travellers will be expanded but no specifics are available at the current time.
Overall numbers of COVID-19 positive tests remain steady, falling consistently within the range of 150-300 daily positive tests since 29 July, 2020. There are a number of questions over the accuracy of the testing due to the Qatari practice of not confirming positive tests with a supplementary test, as well testing symptomless individuals. For this reason it is possible that a large number of the reported positive tests are actually false positives.
Qatar has pre-ordered both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and has already largely opened up society domestically with only a public mask mandate and restrictions on public gatherings remaining in place.
Travel and Infrastructure
This corroborates reports from sources linked to the Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery that a large amount of the accommodation shortfall will be made up through privately-rented accommodation. This will solve the problem of building excessive hotels to meet the requirements of WC 2022, only for them to stand empty after the competition.
As part of the Qatar National Day celebrations, Al Rayyan Stadium was inaugurated on 18 December, 2020. The stadium hosted the Qatari equivalent of the FA Cup final, the Amir Cup final between Al Sadd and Al Arabi. The event was used to stress test the stadium itself as well as security and medical arrangements surrounding football events. However, It should be recognised that the pressures of hosting the Amir Cup final do not adequately represent the difficulties associated with hosting a real international football fixture in the context of a World Cup tournament.
The inauguration of Al Rayyan Stadium brings the total number of completed stadia to four with four more to go. This remaining stadia, Al Bayt, Al Thumama, Lusail and Ras Abu Aboud are still on track for completion in time for the competition despite a number of pay disputes concerning contractors working on the projects. Worker welfare continues to be a concern both domestically and internationally, however typically during the winter months, welfare issues are ameliorated significantly due to the better weather. The cooler daytime temperatures meaning that less heat-related injuries occur and that more construction can take place during daylight hours, reducing the number of accidents and incidents which are due to night-time working.
Culture and Society
The introduction of Law No. 24 can also be viewed in the context of a wider program of reforms to the way business in conducted in Qatar. In his most recent address to the Shura Council, HH Sheikh Tamim mentioned Law No. 24 along with a number of comments on the Qatari public sector:
‘…wages and promotion must be linked to excellence and productivity and to apply that, without exception, on all employees in the State.’
In this context, the Amir’s comments may be read as a vision statement for the country and even a mild rebuke to the excesses of the ‘Rentier State’. This ties in with the narrative being crafted by the Qatari leadership of a move away from a hydrocarbon based ‘Rentier State’ to a meritocratic knowledge-based economy.
Despite certain COVID-19 restrictions, Qatari National Day took place as usual on 18 December. The celebrations included a military parade and flypast, including Typhoons from the joint RAF/ Qatar Emiri Air Force 12 Squadron which is currently in the country for a 2-week training package, Exercise EPIC SKIES.
This year, COVID-19 restrictions mean that the event which is normally characterised by large crowds is going to be severely limited as it will be on an invitation-only basis. However, the ongoing diplomatic crisis means that the day will retain its significance as a showcase for Qatari military power.
The milder winter weather continues to have a positive effect on workplace safety, particularly the construction and oil and gas industries.
Winter in Qatar is typically accompanied by an increase in dense morning fog which can be particularly hazardous when driving so extra caution should be exercised when travelling on roads between the hours of 0300-0600.
Winter is also the time for people to undertake recreational activities in the desert, particularly off-road driving using 4x4s, buggies or trials bikes. These activities are particularly hazardous and foreign guests should exercise caution when invited to participate by Qatari hosts.
Crime continues to be an extremely uncommon occurrence in Qatar. The past month has seen Qatari security and police forces mostly engaged with the enforcement of the mask mandate.
There have also been several narcotics seizures but these have largely been of drugs intended for personal use. This notwithstanding, these incidents highlight the sensitivity of narcotics in Qatari society, with one expat receiving a 5-year prison sentence followed by immediate deportation and a 200 000 QAR fine for the possession of cannabis.
There have been no instances of protests, rallies or industrial action during the reporting period.
This move is likely prompted by generous funding by the State of Qatar for the program (reportedly over 12.5M USD) which is part of a public relations drive to neutralise the accusations of terrorism funding which were at the heart of the Qatar Diplomatic Crisis of 2017.
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