Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

An End to the Blockade on Qatar, Not the Crisis

AlUla declaration: Gulf summit 2020
Journalists watch, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C-R) welcomes the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (C-L), on a screen in the media centre ahead of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the city of al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia on January 5, 2021. Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP

By: Sophia Akram

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit was held on 5 January 2021 in AlUl, a city in the north of Saudi Arabia. While the conference of Gulf states — occurring every few years —discusses a range of issues from science and tech to Palestine, discussion around this year’s event was dominated by the anticipated reconciliation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain — after a three and a half year rift.

Gulf leaders signed a “solidarity and stability” agreement aimed at putting the dispute to bed, labelled the AlUla declaration. “There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction”, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who chaired the summit.

Turkey welcomed the step, which stood by Qatar during a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain.

The move had been anticipated as Saudi Arabia has led efforts to resolve the crisis and helped soften the stance of the other three states involved in the dispute toward Qatar. And on the eve of the summit, Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen its airspace and land and sea borders to its neighbour Qatar, closed since June 2017, when it cut diplomatic ties because of Doha’s alleged support of terrorism, accusations Qatar firmly rejected.

Resolution at the time depended on 13 demands, including closing the Al Jazeera media network and a Turkish military base while cutting its relations with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar refused to concede to any while responding to the impact to its usual 90 percent of imported food by ramping up domestic production.

The change in sentiment from the four nations, however, is likely down to the changing US administration with President Donald Trump on his way out — someone who has given Saudi Arabia considerable leeway amid morally and legally contentions actions by the kingdom.

The President-elect Joe Biden, in contrast, has warned the petrostate would not get a free ride under his watch. Washington has reportedly urged the disputing nations to come to a resolution, which may be to help come to a common understanding on Iran.

Dania Thafer, executive director of Gulf International Forum, also believes there could be concern from Saudi Arabia that the democratic commander-in-chief would reduce US presence in the region.

“If that is the case, then the [Arab] states need to respond with a regional solution to security. And I think resolving the Gulf crisis is one step forward towards that direction”, she said.

Analysts, however, note that reconciliation has far from resolving the crisis. In the immediate term, the move was to allay concerns from the Saudis’ powerful allies while the meat of the agreement is to come later.

There are expected to be concessions on both sides of the dispute, but many do not foresee Qatar will make any.

Political analyst Stéphane Lacroix says that “[Qatar] does not make concessions”, resisting the 2017 demands and making up what it lost through its own means and also by developing new relations.

“Perhaps Qatar will put a little “water in its wine” but I do not believe it will go further, which means that this crisis will not be completely resolved”, he told RFI in French, while others have also suggested the most Qatar may cede is moderating Al Jazeera or curbing the extent the Muslim Brotherhood can view Qatar as a safe haven.

Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, however, said in an interview with the Financial Times, that it would not make changes to the network other Arab countries alleged is used to criticise them, nor would it break ties with Iran or Turkey.

“Bilateral relationships are mainly driven by a sovereign decision of the country . . . [and] the national interest”, he told the paper, “So there is no effect on our relationship with any other country”.

Despite the current terms of the agreement still being unknown, there have been hints from Abdulrahman that some outcomes could be positive for the oil-rich kingdom, Saudi Arabia. It could receive an investment from the Qatar Investment Authority, Abdulrahman indicated, and suspend lawsuits filed with the Word Trade Organisation and the International Court of Justice for Qatar’s isolation.

Other parties involved in the dispute still have reservations. Lacroix told RFI the boycott was initiated because of the UAE: “In 2015, we saw the two countries forge a sort of extremely tight security pact. In 2017, it was the Emirates that dragged Saudi Arabia into the boycott of Qatar”.

Arguably, tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE are growing as the latter starts to carve its own role in the region to exert its geopolitical relevance. In particular, this can be seen in Yemen as the two states back different elements of the government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, albeit as part of the same coalition.

Where Qatar is concerned, the UAE, say analysts, are unhappy about the relationship it has with Ankara. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said that this is one of the questions that will come up as the agreement fleshes out.

“One of the big things will be the geostrategic dimensions, how do we see regional threats, how do we see the Turkish presence?” Gargash said, adding that questions will arise on interference in regional affairs through political Islam and Turkey’s presence in the Gulf.

The UAE has outwardly praised the reconciliation, as has Egypt. But like the UAE, Egypt is concerned about resuming relations with the small Gulf state. The Arab Weekly reported that Cairo did not make its stance clear at the summit and the Egyptian officials spoke in vagaries open to broad interpretation.

The paper’s sources indicate that its concern was to ensure all four parties were satisfied with the deal despite out-ward support.

Bahrain similarly expressed hope for the deal to be finalised ahead of the summit, despite its tension with Qatar in recent weeks along its maritime border. Andreas Krieg from the King’s College London said that the small kingdom was a type of “proxy”.

“While the UAE and Saudi Arabia feel pressure to fall in line with US pressure, they can use Bahrain as a disruptor to continuously show their discontent with Qatar”, he told Al Jazeera.

Qatar appears to have won its hand, refusing to fold despite immense pressure — a unified Gulf serves foreign partners like the US much better after all.

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