The tiny Gulf state of Qatar (population 2.7 million) is probably facing one of its greatest existential and diplomatic crises in recent times. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Yemen and the Maldives have all cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing its supposed support for terrorist groups. There have also been reports that an FBI investigation showed that freelance Russian hackers were responsible for the Qatari government sending out fake messages, thus causing this situation.
A small country like Qatar without its own hinterland will have to rely on other countries for what it needs. Sounds strangely familiar like Singapore? Well what is happening in Qatar gives us an idea of what may happen if something similar befalls Singapore.
Take airspace for instance. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have closed their airspace with Qatar, effectively eliminating air links with the country. If you remember, there was some discussion about Singapore’s FIR (flight information region), with our neighbour trying to make it a matter of lost sovereignty because Singapore was managing some of Indonesia’s airspace. If for some reason, Singapore’s airspace was similarly curtailed, it would have very serious consequences for our aviation industry, tourism, economy and food security, among other things.
A prolonged situation in Qatar would be disastrous for its economy, destroying its tourism industry and stopping air-flown imports of food and goods. As it is, most of Qatar’s food comes via the land border with Saudi Arabia which has been closed. As a result, Qataris have been stockpiling food although the government says they have sufficient strategic food reserves.
There is also the matter of the 2022 football World Cup which Qatar is hosting. Hopefully the impasse does not last till then, but the current situation will not exactly reassure Fifa and participating countries.
Small countries inherently have many challenges stacked against them. In Singapore’s case, we are reliant on food imports and water security is always an issue. We are also hemmed in by much larger neighbours both in terms of land mass and population size. We constantly need to perform the geopolitical dance of maintaining our sovereignty while making sure we are relevant to our neighbours.
After all, there are no true friends in international relations but only mutual interests. The Qatar situation is a timely reminder of the vulnerability of small nations like Singapore. We should not be over-burdened by our realities but must always bear them in mind.