By David Stewart /Crisis Response Journal
The concept of resilience can be applied at all levels — individual resilience is something that every single person experiences when confronting the challenges and demands of daily life.
Organisations, whether small and medium-sized enterprises or multinational corporations, have to be resilient too. But countries or states also have to demonstrate resilience in times of crisis, and here, too many examples spring to mind, including war or conflict, extreme weather incidents, financial crises and political unrest.
Let us take a look at the Gulf crisis and see how Qatar has dealt with the matter in a very positive way.
Qatar is a small country with an indigenous population of 300,000 and an expatriate population of 2.5mn. It has only one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and has always been heavily dependent upon imports of foods and materials. One factor that allows it to do this is oil and gas — Qatar is the largest producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the world and has massive reserves. Being heavily import-dependent has never presented a financial challenge.
As a main player in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar sourced much of its supplies by road from Saudi Arabia or by sea via the UAE. While Qatar has had no financial impediments preventing it from sourcing supplies from further afield, over the years its established local trade routes have led to an estimated 80% of food and building supplies coming via its GCC neighbours; the main route being the land border with Saudi Arabia, which accounted for 40% of all food supplies.
More recently, Qatar has implemented a massive infrastructure programme to support its hosting of the FIFA 2022 World Cup. This resulted in one of the largest building programmes ever seen in the Middle East — eight football stadia, a new rail and metro network covering the country (there being no previous rail network in Qatar), a new road network, highways with significant bridge and tunnel construction, and a massive residential build programme. Demands for raw materials and the need to encourage expatriate experts are critical.
On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, together with Bahrain and Egypt, suddenly cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar. The potential impact on this tiny country, and the challenge of sustaining itself in terms of food, building materials and expertise, became the biggest crisis it has ever faced. Not only was the land border with Saudi Arabia closed, but direct air flights were also ‘blocked’, as was the use of the blockading countries’ airspace by Qatar Airways.
Much has been written and discussed about the justification for this crisis and I do not intend to go into the political machinations. Instead, I focus on the actions of Qatar in terms of broader crisis management activities at state level.
There are two caveats. Although I can provide first-hand experience of being in Qatar during the crisis, I did not have access to any information except that which was published locally, or available through international media sources. Secondly, this article was written six weeks before Crisis Response Journal (CRJ) was published, and circumstances may have altered by the time of going to press.
Having been living in Qatar for 18 months, doing consultancy work on behalf of Crisis Management Limited, the parent company of CRJ, the events and announcement of June 5 came as a complete surprise to the population of Qatar. In the previous weeks there had been some issues following the visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia, where he met with the GCC leaders, including His Highness the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
The controversy started on May 23, when hackers posted fake remarks on Qatar’s official media platform, attributing the statement to the country’s Emir.
Qatar’s Government categorically denied that the comments were ever made and claimed its websites had been hacked. It asked the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to help in the probe.
But following the publication of the stories, Saudi Arabia and the UAE blocked Qatar-based websites, including Al Jazeera, and later led a group of countries in cutting diplomatic ties with Doha.
The initial response from the resident population of Qatar was relatively calm, with the only sign of panic being stockpiling of certain foodstuffs, resulting in some empty shelves. Qataris I spoke to suggested that there would be no long-term crisis and the confident expectation was that the issue would be over in a matter of days or, at worst, a couple of weeks. Instead of improving, however, things became increasingly tense over the next fortnight, with the ‘blockading nations’ issuing a list of 13 demands, most of which were inflammatory and unrealistic (from the perspective of the sovereignty of Qatar) and, as such, it became clear that this crisis would be neither short-term, nor resolved quickly.
By far the most pressing issue was the topic of food supplies. As previously outlined, the vast majority of food came from other GCC nations, so it was important that reassurance be given. Qatar quickly established new supply routes, initially with Turkey and then, Iran. After the initial few weeks, most supermarkets had ready supplies of the basics although some items, such as fresh milk was still in short supply.
Never a nation to miss an opportunity for entrepreneurship, Qatar announced that one of its citizens had established a business to import 4,000 head of cattle to the country to ensure future provision of fresh locally-produced milk.
Further trade routes were developed with Oman, Pakistan and India, in addition to an increase of supply from Western countries. Recently, UK milk and other goods have also started to appear on supermarket shelves — much to the delight of UK expats. While food prices rose marginally as a result of increased importation costs, the government subsidised prices, ensuring that residents did not encounter financial difficulty.
With its massive financial reserves, this cost was obviously not a significant short-term challenge for Qatar, although it is not a sustainable long-term solution. However, the government is actively encouraging citizens to develop local businesses to produce more homegrown products. The current crisis is expected to accelerate a level of self-sufficiency that had never been required previously.
While the Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis made a series of fairly damaging and inflammatory statements about Qatar, the Qatari Government took a far more measured and balanced approach. It did not become hysterical in its denials and instead tried to provide evidence to substantiate its position. Fake news has been the topic of much publicity worldwide recently .
I was amused to read on Emirati news channels about how expats were being prevented from leaving Qatar for fear they would not return. I drove into Doha one evening and stopped for a coffee in a location where these same news channels were reporting that a curfew had been put in place owing to riots, and that a detachment of Turkish soldiers had been called to support the Qatari Army, as it had lost control of the masses. Suffice to say, the fake news stories were just that, and Doha remained the peaceful and safe city I have always found it to be.
While the blockading countries took to media channels, Qatar focused on more formal political ones. Approaches were made to the UN, various human rights organisations, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and even the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). While the result of these discussions was mixed, the tactics employed by Qatar seemed rational and reasonable in the face of a growing frustration from the blockade partners.
From the outset, there appears to have been a measured communication strategy in place. His Highness the Emir remained very quiet, leaving HE the Minister for Foreign Affairs and several senior diplomats to be the public face of the country. At the start of the third month of the blockade, His Highness the Emir gave a speech and this was followed up by foreign visits, culminating in a speech to the UN in New York, signalling an evolution of the communication strategy in a statesmanlike way.
The tone in the printed press and official online outlets has been similarly measured.
One clear strategy has been the publication of positive stories that reassure the public about the impact (or lack thereof) of the blockade on day-to-day activities. Over the first three months of the blockade, barely a day went by without the main newspapers publishing stories of ongoing successful activities.
These included: Articles about joint exercises with foreign armed forces, such as the USA, UK, France and Turkey; the completion of major building projects on time; business as usual for Qatar Airways; new manufacturing opportunities with Qatar that will lead to self-sufficiency; experts providing reassurance about the ‘strength’ of Qatari financial institutions; and the opening of a new port and several new trade routes.
Some more subtle means of communication have also been employed to ensure that the world sees that the impact on Qatar has been minimal. The French football team, Paris St Germain (PSG), broke the world record transfer fee on a single player (€220mn) and then committed to another transfer for €185mn. PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments; the message was clear — not only business as usual, but breaking records. In a slightly more subtle move, Qatar donated some $30mn to emergency funds after hurricane Harvey devastated areas of Texas. Winning hearts and minds seems to be an appropriate description of the tactics employed.
By far and away the single most noticeable aspect has been the way the people of Qatar have come together in support of His Highness the Emir.
In the early weeks of the blockade, a local artist drew an image of His Highness the Emir and, within weeks, it had become the iconic symbol of resilience for the residents (both expat and Qatari). Soon large-scale posters were installed in public spaces across the country, with people writing their messages of support on them. Every company, large or small, had its own ‘Tamim Al Majd’ copy, signed by all staff (and reported in the local newspapers). As time progressed, large buildings were draped in massive images of His Highness Sheikh Tamim in a sign of solidarity, reminiscent of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ methodology during World War II. This simple, but extremely effective meme brought a sense of pride and a visual cue for the population, which has acted as a glue to hold the spirit of the people together.
As stated, the purpose of this article is not to look at the cause of this crisis, but to examine the response by Qatar. Having directly experienced the first three months, my verdict is that there is much that any organisation can learn from the way in which Qatar has responded.
Keeping calm and presenting an image of control: While there is no doubt that below the surface and behind closed doors there will be much frantic activity taking place, on the surface — and from the perspective of the public (both locally and internationally) — the calm perspective of Qatar has done much to reassure its people. At times of crisis, the first sign of panic can spread like wildfire — bad for an organisation and potentially catastrophic for a country. The fact that in the face of what must have been huge pressure, His Highness the Emir and his key ministers and representatives maintained a calm and controlled persona, meant that there has been no internal dissent, no mass exodus of expats and thus, business continuity has been maintained.
Clear and consistent communication: A major factor in keeping people calm at a time of crisis is communication, and Qatar executed this very well. There was quite clearly a strategy in place to keep people calm through consistent and non-inflammatory communication lines. In the face of fake news and allegations of an incendiary nature, the tone of official communication remained one of assurance. Clever use of the press and media to reinforce stories of progress and success in normal day-to-day life added to this.
Turning crisis into opportunity: Although Qatar has a long-term pre-existing plan (2030) to become less dependent upon oil and gas revenue, there was still a significant reliance on trade partners and routes. This crisis forced Qatar to think and act quickly to identify new supply routes and partners. It also resulted in a blossoming internal manufacturing boost and a jump-start to agricultural and farming activities. In the long run, the less reliant any country or organisation is on external support, the better. Qatar may never be fully self-sufficient, but the blockade and diplomatic challenges with other GCC countries has significantly accelerated Qatari plans and has also given the indigenous population the motivation to take a far greater interest in self-sufficiency.
Finding the key to community cohesion: Whether planned or merely a fortunate happenstance, the production of the now-iconic ‘Tamim Al Majd’ image has galvanised the population of Qatar and has cut across all ethnicities. Few cars do not have the sticker version of the image on their rear windows. The image is emblazoned across buildings, magazine covers, newspaper adverts, office screensavers and even items of clothing.
The feeling of togetherness is palpable and not only has gone a long way to ensuring that people are confident about the future, during — but equally importantly — after the current crisis is resolved. There is a genuine feeling of affection that has bonded the population, both locals and expats. In any time of crisis, this is crucial to the longer-term recovery.
The Arabic word ‘somod’ translates to ‘steadfast’ and there is little doubt that Qatar has demonstrated significant steadfastness during the period of crisis. How this will unfold in the coming weeks, months and years is not presently certain, but what I can say is that there is learning for us all from Qatar in terms of how to deal and cope with crisis.
n Former Chief Superintendent David Stewart is Director with Crisis Management Ltd, CRJ’s consultancy division and Global Operations Director for CRJ. David has managed and led numerous successful projects worldwide.
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