What a difference a year makes. In December 2016, pan-Arab solidarity trumped nationalism when Qatar canceled the official ceremonies celebrating independence on its National Day after Aleppo fell to Syrian loyalists. Now, six months after the beginning of a blockade of Qatar imposed by its Arab neighbors, this season of National Days in the Gulf nations (Oman celebrated Nov. 18, followed by the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 2, Bahrain on Dec. 16. then Qatar on Dec. 18) appeared more riven by intra-Arab disputes than ever. In the cracks, the flowers of a new, stronger Qatari nationalism are sprouting.
National Days in the Gulf, once the preserve of simple frivolities, fireworks and corniche parades, have morphed into key nation-building exercises for the region's citizens. Even Saudi Arabia, which only formally recognized a National Day in 2005, has embraced ever-more elaborate public ceremonies. The 40th anniversaries of independence for Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2010-11 were lavish affairs compared to prior years, as the aftermath of the Arab Spring caused National Days to become key exercises in legitimacy for their governments.
Yet for Qatar, this year marked a National Day like no other.
In 2007, then-Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani shifted the Qatari commemoration of the holiday from Sept. 3 to celebrate the semi-legendary ascension of Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed al-Thani. In official Qatari history, Jassim deftly played the Ottomans and British off one another to earn diplomatic recognition for the hamlet of Doha in 1878. It was the first time the Qatari Peninsula had been seen as anything more than an extension of Arabia.
The holiday date shift was notable in its symbolism: Rather than celebrating decolonization with other nearby Gulf states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Hamad al-Thani reached further back into a more fratricidal age, when Bahrain had dominated Doha and the other Arab villages of the Gulf. Jassim had fought Bahrain and Abu Dhabi to overthrow Bahraini suzerainty in the 1860s, a war that put Qatar on the map as its own independent entity. During the war, Qatar burned Bahrain's once-mighty fleet, opening a door to British dominance of the Persian Gulf. Thus, the Dec. 18 National Day declaration struck a distinctly Qatari tone, for Doha was, in effect, declaring independence not from a far-off European empire but from a Gulf Arab neighbor.
The slogan for this year's celebration was "Promises of Prosperity and Glory." Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Abdulrahman al-Thani made it clear that it was a message aimed at Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the nations involved in the blockade. In the face of the quartet's boycotts, Qatar's expatriates and locals alike joined on the corniche in Doha in a display of patriotism and defiance.
Before the blockade, Qatar's cultural, tribal and political distinctiveness had been muddled by centuries of trade and interaction throughout the Gulf. As merchants and Bedouin journeyed from well to well in the centuries before oil, links to land were less important than links to tribal networks. This produced a foggy tribal map with unclear territories stretching across the Arabian Peninsula. Large tribes like the al-Shamsi stretch from Kuwait to Oman. The al-Ameri have branches from the United Arab Emirates to Yemen.
Even Qatar's political identity was muddled: Qatar is an emirate ruled by an emir, as are each of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Qatar was initially meant to join the budding United Arab Emirates in 1971 until it decided to go its own way. Qatar's political distinctiveness is thus often questioned by Emiratis, including Dubai's police chief, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, who had called on the United Arab Emirates to annex Qatar even before the blockade.
But the June blockade drew stark lines in the sand. Tribes and religious sects were divided by passport, sparking complaints from family members now cut off from one another. National identity now dictates freedom of movement as well as economic opportunity; Qataris used to being able to work, travel and live freely anywhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries suddenly find themselves expelled from three of their neighbors.
In this way, the blockading powers inadvertently reinforced Qatar's political distinctiveness; their main complaint is, after all, that Qatar does not toe the line as set by its other GCC partners. This has given rise to a unique nationalism pinned on the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Before the boycott, his official portrait already hung in most buildings in Doha. After it began, a new depiction of him by Qatari artist Ahmed bin Majed Almaadheed went viral and now appears on banners, automobiles and T-shirts. Tamim nationalism is suddenly chic in Doha.
Across Qatar, industries and businesses began to adapt to the blockade, extolling their new nationalist credentials as they did so. Food security, imperiled by the closing of the Saudi land border, raced to the top of the agenda. Qatari capital, once stashed in Dubai, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, returned home. The boundary between good business and patriotic display blurred in other ways as well. Qatar Airways, the national carrier, produced a "no borders, only horizons" advertisement that obliquely criticized the blockade and garnered significant attention online. "The world is all of ours to explore, and it is a strange thing for us to be apart," the ad said. The video earned 1.4 million views, several times the population of Qatar's 300,000 citizens.
After once fighting alongside the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, Qatar brought in Turkish troops to reinforce its already-considerable U.S. firewall against any would-be military invasion. Doha produced new trade deals with Turkey and Iran to ensure as little interruption as possible to the lifestyles of ordinary citizens. Then, on National Day itself, Qatar paraded its hitherto unknown arsenal of Chinese-produced SY-400 ballistic missile systems. When Qatar ordered this new weapon system is still unclear, but the fact that it did demonstrates Doha's willingness to experiment with Beijing as a new major arms partner. As Houthi missiles from Yemen target Riyadh, the sudden appearance of such a system was a pronounced demonstration of military independence from the GCC bloc.
It's a stark shift from the dreams of yesteryear, when GCC states hoped to build a currency and defense union, and shorter passport lines privileged tourists from fellow GCC countries. Regardless of the siege's outcome, Qatari identity has undergone a profound change in a short amount of time.