The Trump Administration has been engaged in a final effort to solve the Gulf crisis before it leaves office on January 20. Last month, Jared Kushner, senior adviser to the US president, visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar and met with both countries’ leaders as part of this push.
The recent US-mediated talks aimed at resolving the Qatar diplomatic crisis that began more than three years ago may herald wholesale changes in the regional balance of power that will necessarily affect ties among Qatar, Turkey and Iran, analysts say.
The rift within the Sunni Muslim world erupted in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Doha and banned Qatar-registered airplanes and ships from using their airspace and sea routes, citing Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism and its close relationship with Iran. Saudi Arabia blocked Qatar’s only land crossing.
Jordan subsequently joined the alliance, which presented 13 demands, including that Qatar shut down the state-owned Al Jazeera news network, for restoring normal relations.
Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that the Trump Administration is working to achieve reconciliation between Qatar and other Arab states in the Gulf, as American officials eyeing their political futures seek to secure an additional foreign policy accomplishment before leaving the White House next month.
“The Trump Administration has invested substantial political capital in the Middle East, and they are hoping for quick yields beyond the Israel portfolio,” Mogielnicki said.
Saudi-Qatari fence-mending would reduce Qatari dependence on Iran on several levels, including ending Doha’s reliance on overflying Iranian airspace, he explained. “If Saudi-Qatari reconciliation occurs, the United Arab Emirates would have to decide whether to follow along or chart its own course concerning relations with Qatar,” he added.
Mogielnicki indicated, however, that even in the best-case scenario, Qatar would not abandon the broad range of new political and economic links that it has forged to combat the blockade that began in 2017. “Qatari ties to Turkey and Iran might be less visible under a stronger GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], but they aren’t going away any time soon,” he said.
The boycotting nations’ demands include political and economic restrictions that would prevent Doha from having any kind of diplomatic representation or economic exchange with Iran. However, Qatar has refused to bow to the pressure, accusing its Gulf and Arab neighbors of enforcing a “siege.”
When the blockade was announced, Iran was quick to provide assistance, while Turkey expressed support for Qatar and sent military forces to Doha, in a move that aroused great resentment among the Saudis.
Suleiman al-Ogaily, a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Society for Political Science, told The Media Line reconciliation would be good for the region, as it would reduce political polarization. “If the Gulf crisis were to be buried, several crises would be buried along with it,” he said.
The Qatar crisis has exacerbated many other crises in the region, such as the one concerning Turkey and the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 inside Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate, Ogaily said. “I believe that Doha needs reconciliation because of the political blockade, which has cost Qatar huge economic losses,” he added.
Harmony in the Gulf would reduce Qatar’s political and economic dependence on Iran and Turkey, he pointed out, adding: “We may see Doha dispensing with the Turkish military base, which is one of the 13 conditions, in order to excise this explosive issue that strains the Gulf political climate.”
Additionally, Ogaily said that if Qatar could restore trust with its Gulf neighbors and Egypt, Doha might try to bridge the gap between Ankara and the Arab Quartet composed of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
He said the reconciliation effort is still in its beginning stages, and it has been facing challenges from opposition by some of the countries that have cut ties with Qatar, as well as from some parties inside Doha.
“Even the official statements were too general. Yes, they welcomed the reconciliation, but they didn’t provide any information or details concerning achieving any of the reconciliation stages,” Ogaily said. “It’s not going easily, and maybe these parties aim to keep the Gulf area in crisis and the GCC weak and divided.”
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah said on Friday that “fruitful discussions took place during the last period in which all parties affirmed their keenness toward Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability, and to reach a final agreement.”
The Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, responded: “The statement of the State of Kuwait is an important step toward resolving the Gulf crisis.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud tweeted: “We look with great appreciation to the efforts of the State of Kuwait to bridge the gap in views on the Gulf crisis, and we thank the American efforts in this regard, and we look forward to being successful for the benefit and good of the region.”
Reconciliation would open paths to resolving the crisis in the Gulf area, as it would undoubtedly strengthen the GCC states after the division due to the blockade on Qatar
Saleh Ghareeb, a Qatari political analyst and writer at the Al-Sharq newspaper, told The Media line the Kuwait statement was expected after a series of visits by Kushner to Doha, Riyadh and Kuwait. “As Gulf citizens, we are waiting for a Saudi statement, which will determine what has been reached,” he said.
These agreements could include, he said, reopening Saudi airspace to Qatar Airways, opening the land borders linking Doha with Saudi Arabia, and ending the measures that were taken on the day that relations were severed with Qatar, including closing all air, sea and land ports.
Ghareeb suggests that US President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory over President Donald Trump, who has been a major supporter of the Arab Quartet countries, pushed Saudi Arabia toward reconciliation with Qatar, including “relinquishing the 13 conditions, and reiterating that it only wants Al Jazeera to reduce its severity toward Saudi Arabia.”
He said that Biden’s criticism of Saudi Arabia regarding human rights violations, including the killing of Khashoggi and in the Yemen civil war, in addition to the Gulf crisis, contributed to the urgent move by Saudi Arabia.
“I believe that this American pressure on Saudi Arabia for reconciliation represents the situation of the region after the killing of the Iranian scientist,” Ghareeb continued, referring to the slaying of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran on November 27. “This concern for reconciliation with Qatar came to confront the dangers posed by Iran in light of the nuclear scientist’s assassination,” he said.
He added that reconciliation would deprive Tehran of $100 million in revenue for Qatar Airways overflights, and transfer this amount to Saudi Arabia, as the airline would no longer need to transit Iranian airspace to circumvent the blockade.
“Reconciliation would open paths to resolving the crisis in the Gulf area, as it would undoubtedly strengthen the GCC states after the division due to the blockade on Qatar,” Ghareeb said.
Mithat Rende, a former Turkish ambassador to Qatar, told The Media Line that at the same time as a channel of communication was re-established between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, another channel was opened between Istanbul and Riyadh.
On the sidelines of last month’s G20 virtual summit chaired by Saudi Arabia, Saudi King Salman called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and “they agreed that their foreign affairs ministers should establish a dialogue to normalize relations between the two countries,” Rende said.
This normalization will not be easily achieved, as the Saudis have continued with their boycott of Turkish products, encouraged by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, he said. “So, we expect the deeds to match the words on the part of the Saudis,” he added.
As long as Gulf reconciliation brings peace and stability, it will serve the people of the region and be welcomed, Rende said, adding that “it could help normalize Saudi-Turkish relations. Maybe the Saudis would like another reconciliation, with Istanbul.”
“I don’t think that Turkey and the Gulf countries, or Turkey and Egypt, should continue with strained relations for the period ahead. They should normalize” relations, he continued.
“We have no border dispute, and no blood was shed; why should they continue with very limited relations and bilateral activities? It’s not in the interest of the peoples,” Rende said.