Gulf Diplomatic Dispute Near Resolution as Qatari Monarch Set to Attend GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia
Riyadh drops blockade to advance talks on conflict
A breakthrough has been reached in the three-and-a-half-year Qatar diplomatic crisis, on the eve of the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani announced on Monday evening that he would attend Tuesday’s summit in Saudi Arabia, a nation that has led a diplomatic and economic blockade of his country since June 2017.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, on the other hand, said he would not attend the summit, and that his country’s delegation would be headed by Crown Prince Salman.
Saudi Arabia was set to reopen its airspace and borders to Qatar, according to Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah. Both land and sea borders would reopen on Monday night, the minister said in a televised comment.
“Based on [Kuwaiti monarch Emir] Sheikh Nawaf’s proposal, it was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar, starting from this evening,” the foreign minister said.
The steps are seen as a goodwill gesture by Riyadh to ease tension with Doha.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said on Monday evening that the kingdom’s policy is based on a firm approach to achieve the supreme interests of the Gulf Cooperation Council states.
He added that the GCC summit would be unifying to the bloc.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, assigned to work on the Gulf dispute by US President Donald Trump, helped to negotiate the possible deal, and reportedly will head an American delegation that will attend the summit in the picturesque, ancient city of AlUla, located in northwestern Saudi Arabia.
Ending the dispute will top the agenda at the meeting of leaders of the GCC member-states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the waning days of the Trump Administration, Washington worked hard to mend the Gulf rift by sending top officials to mediate an end to the crisis, in an attempt to contain Iran.
Dr. Emma Soubrier, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), spoke with The Media Line before the breakthrough was announced. She said that this time around, the parties’ efforts to resolve the dispute were in earnest.
“I would say the intention to put an end to the Gulf crisis can be taken seriously, particularly on the part of the Saudis. Whether these intentions can be translated into an actual resolution of the crisis during the GCC summit is still unclear, however. We might see a formal and optimistic announcement that would not immediately be followed by concrete steps, for instance,” Soubrier said.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy also based in Washington, concurs. He told The Media Line that the desert kingdom wants to send a message to the new occupants of the White House.
“Riyadh is worried about Biden Administration being harsh toward the kingdom. Thus the Saudi leadership seeks ways to buy some goodwill with the incoming president and those in his inner circle. Lifting or at least easing Riyadh’s stance against Qatar would be a relatively low-risk way for Saudi Arabia to send positive messages to [President-elect Joe] Biden about Riyadh’s foreign policy becoming less bellicose and aggressive,” Cafiero said.
Saudi Arabia led a group of countries that included the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and which severed ties with Qatar, expelled its nationals, and closed their borders, ports and airspace to Qatar, citing the latter’s alleged support for terrorism as the main reason behind the political and economic blockade.
Kuwait and Oman maintained good relations with Qatar.
Dr. Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, told The Media Line that Kuwait had repeatedly tried to reconcile the disputing states.
“The Kuwaitis invested a lot of effort in trying to bring all the parties together. The Americans also invested a lot of time and diplomacy in trying to resolve the crisis before the US elections as well,” she said.
The quartet of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE accused Doha of getting too close to Tehran and supporting radical Islamist groups. Qatar denied the allegations.
Saudi officials who wished to remain anonymous told The Media Line there is a consensus within the royal family that the Gulf crisis needs to be resolved. It has caused the kingdom more harm than they had thought would be the case, they said.
“There has been a shift at the highest level in Saudi Arabia that it’s important to change things,” said Vakil. “I think that the Saudis have made their decision at the top level that the crisis isn’t beneficial for them.”
Soubrier argues that the Saudis have been ready to end the dispute with Qatar for some time.
“Since Riyadh puts Tehran at the top of its security threats and priorities in the region, the Gulf crisis has perhaps been seen as an obstacle to a firmer front against Iran, a perspective that is echoed in the current White House,” she said.
When the crisis erupted in June 2017, the boycotting countries issued a list of 13 demands that Doha had to implement to resolve the dispute, including closing pan-Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera, severing relations with and ending its financing of groups such as Hamas, and closing Turkish military base in Qatar.
Doha has not given any hint that it is ready to give in on any of the demands.
Vakil said, however, that Doha was “bowing to pressure.”
“The Qataris have been quite resolute that they don’t intend to make a huge shift under pressure, so the question is what sort of face-saving solution can be agreed upon to de-escalate the crisis,” she said.
Doha is adamant that it will not sever relations with Tehran or Ankara.
“That’s not going to happen. You are not going to see a big shift in Qatar’s foreign policy. Doha appreciates what Turkey and Iran have done for Qatar,” Vakil said.
Hasan Awwad, an expert on Middle East politics, told The Media Line that before a final resolution could be reached, the group of conservative Sunni monarchies first needed to build trust.
“They [the parties to the dispute] hammered each other mercilessly. There have to be confidence-building steps to repair the damage,” Awwad said.
The quartet countries needed to offer Qatar an “olive branch,” he said.
“They need to reopen the borders, allow Qatar airplanes to use their airspace, and they all need to tone down their attacks on one another in their media,” Awwad said.
In late November, Bahrain accused Qatar of violating its maritime border, when three Qatari coast guard vessels stopped two ships belonging to Bahrain’s coast guard that were returning from taking part in a maritime exercise, raising tensions between the two countries.
Qatar later said the ships were stopped inside its waters and were permitted to leave after it contacted Bahraini authorities for clarification.
Cafiero said the UAE was under less pressure to change its “rigid” position against Doha than was Saudi Arabia, and it might be less willing to compromise.
“Having signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020, Abu Dhabi has enjoyed a public relations boost in Washington, where the UAE-Israel normalization deal has received strong support on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Despite that, Egypt and the UAE have since publicly expressed support for the negotiations. Observers agreed that the summit would yield more flexible positions, but many doubted that we would see a spectacular display of GCC unity.