While the focus is understandably on the geo-politics of the crisis, the direct first affectees are the common citizens of the countries locked in the dispute.
The humanitarian crisis resulting from the stand-off has hit mixed families — largely involving a Qatari spouse, or students studying away from home in one of these countries — the most.
After enforcing the blockade, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain ordered Qatari expatriates to leave these countries within a fortnight as well as direct their own citizens in Qatar to return home.
Taking cognizance of the situation, albeit with a disclaimer about taking “no view on the political dispute itself,” the Amnesty International expressed serious concern over its impact.
“These drastic measures are already having a brutal effect, splitting children from parents, and husbands from wives. People from across the region — not only from Qatar but from the states implementing these measures also — risk losing jobs and having their education disrupted,” Amnesty said in a statement.
In one case cited by Amnesty, a Qatari man, who has lived in the UAE with his family for more than 10 years, was refused entry and sent back to Qatar as he tried to return home to Dubai from Doha, just after the measures were announced on June 5. His wife is an Emirati national and is, therefore, forbidden from travelling to Qatar, while his children are Qatari nationals and so are required to leave the UAE. He is now separated from his family and does not know when he will see them again.
The man told Amnesty how his wife had pleaded with the duty officer to see her husband one last time. “The officer said, no way, just go back,” he recalled. He fears his employers will dismiss him since he cannot return and also because of his nationality.
In another case, a Saudi man, who lives in Doha with his Qatari wife, says he is unable to visit his mother, who is seriously ill in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, because if he does, he will not be able to return to Qatar to be with his wife and children. “If I go home, I can’t see my wife. If I stay here, I can’t see my mom,” he bemoans.
Qatar, however, has taken a more humane view of the situation even if critics conjecture it may be a calibrated move to win hearts and minds.
The contrast was evident last week when Qatar’s Ministry of Interior notified that residents from the countries that have severed diplomatic relations or downgraded ties with Doha will face no action and that they can stay on in the peninsula “in accordance with the laws and regulations of the country in the framework of labour contracts signed with them”.
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Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain later announced they would address the issue of mixed citizenship. But Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee retorted that “while the directives make reference to considering the humanitarian situation, they provide no solution to the serious legal and human rights issues that have resulted from the arbitrary measures.”
Talking of contrasts, it is also evident in how Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain criminalised any criticism of their respective governments’ policies on the issue or sympathy for Qatar on the social media or written/verbal mediums with varying degree of jail terms (3-15 years in UAE; 5 in Bahrain) and fines ($136,000 in UAE). Similarly, Qatar’s influential Al Jazeera and its affiliated networks and websites of Qatari publications were also banned forthwith, with severe penalties in the event of violation.
Qatar, however, continues to allow broadcasts and online access of publications from the blockading countries without let or hindrance. While urging citizens and residents to exercise freedom of speech with responsibility, the Qatari government cautioned them not to make any insulting remarks about the countries that have severed ties with Qatar and their leadership and peoples!
This apparent gulf in treatment hasn’t gone unnoticed with a ‘loyal’ base of expatriates, who outnumber the locals by a distance.
Ahmad Hussain, a prominent businessman and President of Pakistan Welfare Forum — a leading charity organisation based in Doha focused on educating students from poor families and providing healthcare to the less privileged members of the community — zeroes in on the crux of the crisis thus:
“The cracks seem to be too wide, too deep and may be too old to be filled soon or easily. May be the idea behind the abrupt and intense siege was to starve Qatar of supplies, especially food, so that the country would be on its knees within no time. Well, that hasn’t happened, thanks to Qatar’s resilience and friends like Turkey, Iran and Morocco coming to the party.”
“These testing times will strengthen the country’s resolve,” Hussain avers philosophically, before adding, “may be, it will help them develop contingency plans, risk management, and find more sustainable alternatives”.
Does the situation worry the expatriates?
“There is concern, yes, but no panic. The shelves are full; the prices are roughly the same and so, too, the quality. One hopes it will get even better as new supply chains are established,” Hussain says.
Shiela Cinchez, a Filipino teacher who has lived in Doha for more than half a decade, hopes that the crisis will not escalate and an amicable resolution would be found. “But if the situation deteriorates, we will have little choice but to return home,” she conjectures. For now though, she feels comfortable, especially with the replenishment of stocks.
Rajan Shrestha, Vice President of the Nepali football team, who has lived in Doha for a decade, believes the ties that bind the Gulf are too deep for these to be uprooted. “The GCC countries are like brothers and will resolve their differences. It is just a matter of time,” he wagers. When asked about any noticeable change to the lives of expatriates in the wake of the crisis, Shrestha shakes his head, but says he will only consider the option to leave, if the situation becomes untenable.
Musthaq Ahmed, a Sri Lankan logistics and procurement staffer with a company, who has been a Doha resident since 2008, says he does not feel encumbered by the situation because the blockade has not affected normal life as such but if it does take a turn for the worse, he will only “take the last flight home”.