Saudis in Doha fear having to give up homes and jobs because of regional crisis

After Abdullah’s fourth child was born last month, he looked forward to when his relatives would visit Qatar from Saudi Arabia to meet his new son.

The Saudi academic had moved to Doha three years ago to take a job at one of the gas-rich state’s universities. One of the attractions was the ease of travel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the two are linked by a land border, and flights between Doha and Riyadh at the time were cheap and numerous. And, because both are members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, a regional bloc, their nationals were able to travel and work freely in the respective countries.

But almost as soon as Abdullah’s relatives had bought airline tickets to Doha, his life was thrown into disarray when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties and all transport links with Qatar. In an unprecedented move, the three Gulf governments also ordered their citizens to leave Qatar within two weeks. Qataris living in the three neighbouring countries were given the same amount of time to return home.

With the June 18 deadline fast approaching, the decision threatens to split families and unravel the core principle of the GCC — the Middle East’s only successful trade and economic bloc — as thousands of people find themselves abruptly forced to uproot lives and careers built across borders.

“You have kids in school. It’s not that easy. You cannot destroy your kids’ life. You cannot leave that quick,” says Abdullah, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of government reprisals. “Now everything is on hold. Some of my family bought tickets [to Doha] and now they are waiting, hoping.”

He has yet to decide whether to stay or leave. “I’m still in limbo,” he says.

He is not alone as Gulf nationals count the human cost of the extraordinary regional embargo. More than 17,000 Saudis live in Qatar, Riyadh’s ambassador told Al Hayat newspaper in December. Many of them were attracted by high-paying jobs because Doha has spent tens of billions of dollars developing media, academic and cultural sectors and prepares to host the 2022 football World Cup.

Bahrainis have also found jobs in Qatar’s financial sector, bankers say, while Qatar’s array of world-class university campuses has been a draw.

But more Saudis are affected than other nationals because they come from the most populous Gulf state. Now they are grappling with a dilemma: do they pack everything and depart for good, or do they leave possessions behind and hope to return one day?

“It’s not just about leaving the house. You leave your job too. If you go home you will be jobless,” says another Saudi professor working at a Qatari university. “How do you guarantee that I won’t join the pool of unemployed Saudis?”

Riyadh and its two Gulf allies did soften their stance on Sunday, saying they would set up telephone hotlines to “take into consideration the humanitarian circumstances” of Qataris related to their own nationals.

That followed the intervention of Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, who called for an easing of the blockade. But Sunday’s move is only expected to offer leniency to people married to Qataris. The Gulf states’ air, land and seaports will remain closed to Qatar, which they accuse of sponsoring terrorism, allegations that Doha denies.

Saudi Arabia’s culture ministry offered last week to hire journalists working for Al Jazeera, the satellite television network, and other Qatar-based news organisations. But the offer does not extend to other sectors.

Many Saudis also have businesses in Qatar and move regularly between the countries, including Bedouin tribesmen who have long inhabited the desert areas that straddle the border and who keep their camel herds in region.

In addition to the emotional angst the measures are inflicting, there are also many basic logistical challenges. Some Saudis worry that they may not be able to find a buyer for their houses in Qatar before the deadline to move or, if they do, they will have to accept a price below market value. What happens to their Qatari-registered homes is also unclear.

Public dissent has been largely silenced because those who object to Riyadh’s policies on Qatar face up to five years in jail, according to Saudi media. The UAE and Bahrain also warned last week that showing “sympathy” with Qatar was a crime punishable by imprisonment and fines.

The rift is raising fears among Gulf citizens that rights granted during the 35 years since the GCC was formed could be lost. More than 500 people have signed an online petition — launched on Friday — calling for unity, and urging governments to resolve the crisis through dialogue. But signs of diplomatic progress have been negligible.

Abdullah, the academic, has family in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while his relatives are also linked by marriage to people in Bahrain and the UAE. Still, he is trying to remain upbeat as he considers his next move.

“I want to be optimistic because you cannot imagine Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE not having a relationship,” he says. “I don’t care about the political arena, honestly, but socially this is a disaster.”

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