The Saudi-led blockade on Qatar's economy has finally ended, but what does such a defeat for a large powerful nation mean for both Qatar and the Middle East, and how can Qatar lead the region away from theocracy? Emily Barley reports on the matter.

Last week Saudi Arabia and its allies finally agreed to end its blockade of Qatar, in a move being hailed as a huge victory for the tiny gas-rich country and a turning point in the development of the economies of the Middle East.

For more than three years Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt – led by Saudi Arabia – have halted trade, prevented air traffic, and stopped the movement of people in a hugely damaging blockade which has hurt Qatar's economy and broken apart families who married across national borders.

Saudi Arabia had made a series of demands of its smaller neighbour, including that Qatar align with the other Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically, as well as a range of other backwards steps such as shutting down prominent news network Al Jazeera. These bully boy tactics did not work, with the Qataris rejecting every single one the blockaders' ridiculous demands and emerging victorious at the end of a tough three years.

Commentators have variously described Saudi Arabia's capitulation as a 'gift' for incoming US President Biden, or else a last parting victory for President Trump and the 11th hour negotiating team he dispatched to the region, but it is likely closer to the truth to say that the Saudis had over-played their hand and underestimated Qatar's determination to strike out on its own path of liberalisation. Credit, too, must be given to the Kuwaitis, who have been dedicated mediators in the dispute.

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Whatever the explanation, the end of the blockade of Qatar may well mark a turning point in the history of the Middle East, as Saudi influence wanes and others rise – not to dominate their neighbours, but to engage with the world and their own populations in a different way.

That is Qatar's long-term plan, and it is what attracted the ire of the Saudis in the first place. As Saudi Arabia clings to its theocracy, makes only the smallest of small steps towards reducing oppression of women and minorities, and continues to be over-reliant on its vast but increasingly less important oil resources, Qatar is continuing along a different path.

Still a conservative nation with limited room to manoeuvre on social issues, Qatar is nevertheless making strides forward. Its first legislative elections are scheduled for October this year, and the country's leadership regularly strikes new free trade deals and lifts more price controls. This liberalisation of the economy has been accompanied by liberalisation in other areas, including of the press. Qatar has also been engaging with the international community, acting as a mediator in a range conflicts and hosting an American military base. Closer to home, there has been long-standing military cooperation between the UK and Qatar, including receiving Qatar's top brass at the military academy at Sandhurst, and a joint RAF-Qatari air force squadron that has flown over 60 joint training missions.

Qatar's alternative approach to internal affairs and international engagement is sure to be watched carefully by others in the region and may well become a model for what a modern middle eastern country should look like. Having now cleared the largest hurdle – proving to the world that it is possible to get out from under the dominance of Saudi Arabia simply by standing firm and refusing to submit to wholly unreasonable demands – Qatar's strategy for independence and growth is likely to be emulated by others in the Gulf.

Western liberal democracies should welcome these developments and do everything in their power to encourage and help Qatar further along this path of freedom and prosperity, as support given now will surely pay dividends in the future.

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