Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Access Denied: Banning Qatari Ships from Blockading States

Muna main

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposed a blockade, and immediately moved to close off access to Qatar, with an embargo on air, sea, and land traffic to and from the country. These punitive measures were based on allegations that Qatar was supporting terrorism, which Qatar denied, and were used to pressure Qatar to comply with a list of demands in order to end the blockade, which Qatar rejected.

Muna Al-Marzouqi, Assistant Professor of Maritime and Commercial Law at Qatar University’s College of Law, was invited to share her research on this subject at CIRS on October 17, 2018. Her presentation concerned “access denied” to Qatari ships by the blockading states, and specifically the legality of the ban. Al-Marzouqi studies this unique aspect of the Gulf crisis through maritime laws, and she has probed the question of whether the blockade is in conformity with principles of international laws and conventions.

There are several laws that govern maritime trade. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a body of laws, customs, and agreements that applies to all nations, and governs how nations interact in maritime matters. Maritime law considers activities and events related to the seas that, for example, would apply to shipping companies, their clients, and their employees.

The blockade has prevented all vessels owned by the Qatari government or a Qatari citizen from being accepted at the ports of the blockading countries. In fact, in the first weeks of the conflict, vessels owned by other countries that were bound for or arriving from Qatar were also denied access the blockade countries’ ports. However, Al-Marzouqi said, Qatar’s minister of transportation and telecommunication filed a complaint with the International Maritime Organization seeking permission for foreign and Qatari vessels to enter these ports and, as a result, foreign vessels were allowed access to Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini ports, but Qatari vessels remained banned.

While analyzing the impact of the blockade, Al-Marzouqi pointed out that Qatar regularly imported goods from the blockading countries—such as food, pharmaceutical products, and other daily essentials—but no longer has access to these. Vessels do not only dock at these ports for fuel and repairs, she explained, but also for humanitarian reasons like medical assistance or ship maintenance. So there are many aspects of trade that are affected by the shipping ban.

Al-Marzouqi has researched the applicable international rules to determine which apply to the blockade. “There are rules from maritime conventions, trade conventions, and also from the principles of international law that may be applicable,” she said. The Law of the Sea regulates the right of coastal states to take some measures against foreign vessels. One of the rights of foreign-flagged vessels is to have “innocent passage” into the territorial waters of foreign states. She explained that any vessel, whatever the nationality, has the right to enter the waters of another foreign state. In the current case of Qatar, however, no Qatari vessel is currently allowed to enter the waters of the blockading states—let alone be granted safe passage. She explained that the term “innocent passage” means that ships can pass through the waters without breaching any laws or doing harm, “and Qatari vessels are now deprived of this right.”

“The actions taken against the state of Qatar are actually unjustified, unreasonable, arbitrary, and outrageous.”

Another applicable treaty in this situation is the Convention on International Régime of Maritime Ports of 1923, which remains in force today. This convention obligates states party to the convention open their ports to other states; however, none of the blockading states are signatories to this convention—including Qatar. Thus, this convention only has a “persuasive effect” on states, but it is a part of the customary international law. Al-Marzouqi said that all states are obligated to apply the rules articulated in the convention, and therefore “states should not deny access to ports.”

One of the most important international conventions is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of 1994. GATT regulates trade between states and its principles encourage states to adopt free-trade policies and eliminate barriers to trade. By suspending maritime navigation to and from Qatar and hampering trade with the state, the blockading nations are going against the principles of free trade. Al-Marzouqi pointed out one exception to these rules: in a situation where states need to protect their national security interests, they are allowed to resort to these measures. This gives rise to the question of whether Qatar is enough of a national security threat to merit a response like the blockade.

Al-Marzouqi said, based on her research, these claims of threats to national security “do not have any basis, and thus the blockade is a not a legal response,” because the blockading countries have failed to provide any substantial proof to strengthen their claims of Qatar’s security or terrorism threat. In response, Qatar has filed cases with international organizations like the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Al-Marzouqi argued that the case against Qatar does not meet the security exception to the applicable rules, and therefore, “the actions taken against the state of Qatar are actually unjustified, unreasonable, arbitrary, and outrageous.”

Principles of international law urge states to work together to find solutions to crises like this. Al-Marzouqi pointed out that the blockade against Qatar is “a political problem that leads to legal consequences.” There is no international body with the authority to impose binding decisions on states to stop actions that are not in conformity with international law, she said, except for the ICJ. However, “the blockading states don’t want to solve the problem by amicable means or by judicial means,” she said. There is a presumption in law that applies to the blockade, Al-Marzouqi said, where the refusal of all mediation and negotiation attempts by the blockading nations indicates “that they have no evidence to show that Qatar is a terrorist country.”


Article by Khansa Maria, CURA Administrative Fellow

Muna Al-Marzouqi is Assistant Professor of Maritime and Commercial Law at Qatar University College of Law. She received her LL.B from Qatar University College of Law and a Masters degree in law from the University of California, Berkeley. She obtained her doctorate in the field of Maritime Law from Tulane University.