Anthony Howard: UK analogy shows how brutal blockade of Qatar really is

Fellow gulf states have placed onerous demands on their neighbour Qatar.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 4th Summit of Arab States and South American countries in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on November 11, 2015. The summit aims to strengthen ties between the geographically distant but economically powerful regions. AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Imagine, if you will, that Theresa May has had the mother of all bust-ups with Nicola Sturgeon.

It’s March 2019 on the eve of Britain’s departure from the EU.

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The Prime Minister has accused Scotland’s First Minister of conducting her own foreign policy and siding with European leaders determined to give the UK the worst possible Brexit deal.

She orders a blockade of Scotland from the rest of the UK - and a draconian repatriation scheme.

Any Scot living in England must return north of the border immediately. And anyone English living in Scotland must pack their bags and move south within 14 days.

Ditto any Scot living in Wales and Northern Ireland, and vice versa.

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Those with businesses face ruin as trade between the countries slows, plunging fisheries, timber exports and the oil and gas industries in Scotland into chaos. Any chance of being brought back into the fold means Sturgeon has give up plans to create a new BBC Scotland, stop all contacts with May’s political opponents, and pay compensation for any Scottish policies that have caused England financial losses.

As if that was not enough, anyone going on Twitter in a show of sympathy or support for Scotland will be thrown jail for up to 15 years.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

But this, more or less, is what’s happening to the people of Qatar following the dispute between the tiny Gulf state and a Saudi-led alliance which so far has trampled over the human rights of 13,000 people.

For 36 years Qataries have been free to travel to, live and work in neighbouring countries in the Persian Gulf.

Many have married into those countries’ families, bringing up mixed nationality children for decades.

Instead of our four countries under one United Kingdom, theirs is an alliance of six nations, called the Gulf Cooperation Council, set up in 1981 as a show of Arab unity following the Iranian Revolution.

But on June 5th all of this suddenly changed.

Three of the six - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates – as well as Egypt cut their ties to Qatar over its independent foreign policy, close links to Iran and alleged support of terrorist extremism.

They made a series of 13 onerous demands which Qatar argues will place severe restrictions on its sovereignty.

But until it did so it was subjected to a harsh diplomatic and transport blockade.

Not only were all Qataris told to get out of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, countries they had become entwined with for the past three decades.

But Saudis, Emiraties and Bahrainis were also ordered home under threat of having their passports removed and not renewed.

More than 11,000 citizens from these three countries live in Qatar.

And nearly 6500 Qatari nationals who are married to people from the countries faced being split up from their loved ones.

It is particularly traumatic for wives in mixed marriages whose children can only take their father’s nationality and so must be removed from their mother.

Jawaher’s mother is Qatari and her father is Bahraini.

‘If we are made to go to Bahrain, what are we going to do there?’ said the 21-year-old university student, who did not want to give her full name. ‘And we are going to leave our mum behind. Our family will be divided’.

Khalid Mubarak al-Buainain is a Saudi who has been living in Qatar for many years and was married to a Qatari woman.

He said he had been ordered to return to Saudi or face a £2200 fine and a three-year travel ban.

Last month a report by the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, told how a Saudi man living in Qatar couldn’t visit his mother in hospital because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to return to Qatar to his children and Qatari wife.

Another man, Rashed al-Jalahma, 22, who is also the child of a Qatari-Bahraini marriage, said: ‘We were in shock and awe when we learned we could no longer see them because of politics. What does the population have to do with the problems of the politicians?’

Qatar has already hired a Swiss law firm to investigate thousands of cases of human rights abuses which had arisen as a result of the Saudi-led blockade.

James Lynch, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International, said: ‘We’ve met people, parents split from their children in a different country. I’m thinking of a Qatari man whose Saudi Arabian wife is with a newborn baby, less than two weeks old. They are in Saudi Arabia. At the moment it’s very hard for these people to know when they are next going to see these relatives.’

Adam Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, believes the blockade may have been imposed without proper consideration given to the consequences.

‘As well as families being split we’ve also seen students kicked out of the countries they were studying in, we had cases of people who were undergoing medical treatment that was only available in surrounding countries. They were prevented from re-entering those countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, to continue medical treatment. One needed face surgery and another was a child who needed treatment for epilepsy.’

There is also the issue of foreign workers stranded in the Saudi desert working on Qatari properties who can’t be paid because the banks are no longer co-operating.

‘They could do something like a Western Union wire but these workers are in super remote areas. They’ll probably have to leave the country and find somewhere else.’

Instead of throwing their toys out of the pram the Saudis and their allies need to accept that this is no way to behave in the 21st Century.

This means lifting the blockade, restoring diplomatic relations and agreeing to discuss their differences with Qatar in a recognised and peaceful manner.

They can start with free speech.

In Bahrain a prominent human rights lawyer was arrested for trying to sue the government for its treatment of Qataries.

And a citizen who dared to expressed sympathy for Qatar on social media was also detained for violating a ban on such actions.

Imagine living in a country where that happens.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.