Qatar, Saudi Arabia Might be Inching Closer to Restoring Ties (with AUDIO INTERVIEW)
Analysts say, however, that wider crisis, including blockade supported by other countries, could continue
Saudi Arabia beat Qatar 1-0 on the soccer field last week during the Gulf 24 Football Cup in Doha. But in the political arena, the score is yet to be officially settled.
Two and a half years ago, accusing Qatar of supporting Iran and terrorist groups – charges Doha vehemently denied – Riyadh and several of its Arab allies imposed a suffocating blockade, although many say the tiny, gas-rich state has been able to survive the tight embargo, in itself a huge win.
On Thursday, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani spoke of “some progress” in talks with Saudi Arabia on ending the bitter rift between the two states.
“In recent weeks, we may have moved from a stalemate to some progress where there are some talks that took place between us and specifically Saudi Arabia, and we hope that these talks will lead to progress where we can see an end to the crisis,” Thani said.
In what could be another sign of a breakthrough, Saudi King Salman sent a handwritten invitation to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani inviting him to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh next week.
But analysts say it’s too early to announce an end to the crisis.
Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at The Washington Institute, told The Media Line that the delegation Doha sends to the summit will be an indication of how serious the rapprochement is.
“We will know how serious the supposed Saudi-Qatar talks are by seeing who attends the GCC Summit from Qatar,” she said. “If Emir Tamim attends, it suggests talks are happening and serious. If, like the past two years, he does not, then it could mean a number of things: either the talks are not really serious, they are at a preliminary stage still or they are quite fragile.”
In declaring their rift, Riyadh and the others made 13 demands of Qatar. They included closing a Turkish military base on its soil; shutting down the Doha-based Al Jazeera news network; and stopping all funding for individuals or organizations designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the United States and other countries.
Doha has refused to act on any of the conditions, saying that doing so would violate its sovereignty.
The US and Kuwait are playing a crucial role in in attempting to resolve the dispute.
The White House sees Iran as a major threat in the region, and its efforts to build a regional military force to block Tehran’s influence has been negatively affected by the rift, DeLozier says.
“A split GCC is not helpful in confronting the Iranian threat, so perhaps patching things up with Qatar can help protect Saudi Arabia from what it sees as more a serious threat, namely Iran,” she stated.
In September, a highly sophisticated drone and cruise missile attack against two major Saudi oil facilities reduced the top oil exporter’s output by half, accounting for 5 percent of global oil supply. Both Riyadh and Washington pointed their fingers at Tehran.
“At this point, what prompted the supposed rapprochement [with Qatar] is speculation, but some think that the… attack on Saudi oil facilities really made the Saudis rethink their strategy toward Iran,” DeLozier said.
Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based Middle East analyst, told The Media Line that not all the countries involved in the blockade are going to follow Riyadh’s lead.
“If reconciliation takes place between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, other countries will have to follow suit, especially Bahrain,” he said. “But regarding UAE, whether it decides to join the reconciliation efforts or not, relations will be very cold between Qatar and Abu Dhabi, and there will be distrust.”
Bakeer also argues that if an end to the crisis comes, it could signal an end to Salman’s rule.
“This would probably mean that the Saudis also are preparing for a transition in the power in the kingdom in a way that allows MbS to become the king,” he said, referring to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.
The gulf schism has impacted several spheres, including local economies and regional policies.
The aim of those that initiated the blockade was to force Qatar to give in to their demands, but Doha with the help of closest allies, namely Tehran and Ankara, was able to maneuver and survive.
“Qatar already won when it managed to survive the blockade,” Bakeer said. “All the other things are just a matter of time.”
The following is an audio interview with the Washington Institute’s Elana DeLozier.