Going home

After spending several weeks on the road supporting Runrig Malachy starts the long journey home from

Having been in England touring for the past three weeks, it felt good to be on the way home again.

I took the nine o’clock train on Wednesday morning from London King’s Cross and gazed out of the window as we rolled northwards towards Edinburgh. The clutter and bustle of the city soon gave way to green, and the urban interventions grew increasingly infrequent the closer to Scotland we became.

A dense haze lay over much of the country, covering fields and towns, and cloaking Durham cathedral in a strange half-light which made that city seem hardly real at all. And when the sea finally appeared, just south of the border, the horizon too was disguised, so it was hard to discern where the water ended and the sky began. It was a relief though to have it there – the cold North Sea – alongside the train, and I felt somehow more relaxed to see it, and to feel the space open up beyond the shore.

From Edinburgh I took a second train, continuing onwards to Aberdeen. The route follows the east coast, passing small seaside towns and villages on its way, as well as the cities of Perth and Dundee. It is a pleasant journey, and one which I have taken dozens of times over the years. Here the air was clearer and the sky blue. The horizon was now sharp as a knife edge.

Getting to Shetland can be done quickly or slowly – by air or by land and sea. I prefer the slow route. For one thing it is more comfortable; the hours spent on the train from London were relaxing, if not exactly luxurious, and the ferry journey north from Aberdeen can be enjoyable if the weather behaves, as it did this night.

It is good, also, to be reminded of just how far away from things we really are – from the noise and the dirt and the chaos of London in particular. Seven hours on a train, then 12 on a ferry, are enough to give a real sense of distance and, I think, of perspective. Travelling by plane makes it all seem too easy, and too close.

The boat arrived in Lerwick at 7.30 on Thursday morning, just as light was beginning to descend on the town. A pale sky of pink and blue in the southeast was just fading towards daylight as I walked from the ferry terminal towards the town centre.

At this time of year there is no way of getting to Fair Isle on a Thursday, which meant I had a day’s wait in Lerwick before my Friday morning flight. Or, at least, that was the plan. But Friday dawned grey and dark, with a south-westerly gale still raging from the previous night, and all plans were suddenly worthless.

Phoning the airport at regular intervals during the day for updates on the weather situation, I could hear an infectious lack of optimism in the voice of the woman I spoke to. And though the wind did ease during the morning, the change was accompanied by clouds descending and rain increasing. So when I was finally told at three o’clock to get myself to the airport as quickly as possible, I could hardly believe we would be getting home after all.

I was right. We didn’t. The clouds lifted briefly, and then descended once again. The flight was cancelled.

So I’m sitting writing this in a friend’s living room in Lerwick, with the rain still battering the window. The next flight will be Monday morning; though, again, the weather doesn’t look promising. On days like these, distance can suddenly lose its appeal.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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