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The Qatari Sanctions Episode: Crisis, Response, and Lessons Learned

This report represents the research and views of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Center on Global Energy Policy. The piece may be subject to further revision. Contributions to SIPA for the benefit of CGEP are general use gifts, which gives the Center discretion in how it allocates these funds. More information is available at Our Partners. Rare cases of sponsored projects are clearly indicated. For a full list of financial supporters of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA, please visit our website at Our Partners. See below a list of members that are currently in CGEP’s Visionary Annual Circle.

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Jay Bernstein
Breakthrough Energy LLC
Occidental Petroleum Corporation

Executive Summary

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with and imposing sanctions on Qatar. The most formidable of these sanctions was a comprehensive blockade of Qatar, which involved the closure of the land border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as banning Qatari planes from entering these countries’airspace. The coalition then embarked on a limited program of sanctions advocacy, seeking US, European, East Asian, and other regional support for their efforts.

Nearly three years after the crisis began, Qatar’s economic indicators all point to the positive and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has broadly concluded that the Qatari economy is structurally sound. Qatar faces some of the same issues and tensions that other hydrocarbon-dependent economies experience, but is in a comparatively strong position, particularly as relates to its future sanctions resilience as will be described below.

This paper, part of the broader sanctions work from the Energy Security program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, sets aside whether the cause of the Qatari dispute with its neighbors justified the use of sanctions and examines the significance of the execution of those sanctions. Qatar’s experience is not replicable in many contexts, given its sizable advantages in available resources. Nonetheless, how the country responded to and—in this paper’s assessment—effectively defeated the sanctions campaign mounted against it points to several lessons about the design and implementation of sanctions.

Four findings are particularly important and revelatory:

  1. There are profound risks to sanctions use and performance from inadequate preparation and study of the sanctions target and its motivations.
  2. Even in a world of increasingly unilateral and “coalition” action, the imperative of bringing to bear as much international cooperation and support to a sanctions campaign as possible is undiminished.
  3. The coalition’s failure to identify credible off-ramps for Qatar and achievable diplomatic objectives undermined the sanctions campaign. Effective sanctions policy involves clarity on how to undo sanctions and communications with all sides as to what it will take to achieve this.
  4. Overreaching on this case may undermine the possible use of sanctions in the future against Qatar and, perhaps, other future targets.

This last point bears underscoring: the demands made of Qatar did not match the leverage being applied, but did warn Qatar as to the threats that it faced from foreign economic coercion. Having been so attacked, the Qataris are resolved to not be subject to such pressure again in the future and have created sufficient flexibility, diversity, and reliability in their supply chains and business arrangements that it would be very difficult for a future sanctions campaign to generate much pressure on the country unless it took on a truly global character. Moreover, Qatar now has the national confidence that it could manage under such circumstances, a psychological source of resolve that will serve it should the country face another such attack.

More than anything, the Qatari example highlights the main lesson of most sanctions policy failures: the problems were less in the application of measures or their enforcement, and more in the underlying policy concepts that led to their misapplication. Policymakers around the world contemplating the use of sanctions would be well served to look at the Qatari sanctions episode as a cautionary tale, showing how an ill-formed policy can ultimately undermine even legitimate complaints and result in a situation that even rewards the sanctioned party with greater resilience and capabilities. For this reason, they should not be used unless subjected to rigorous planning and assessment, ironically of the sort that Qatar is now pursuing as a means of defeating such sanctions campaigns that might be mounted against it in the future.

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The Qatari Sanctions Episode: Crisis, Response, and Lessons Learned

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