While divided, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political and economic alliance of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula, presented a united front during its yearly summit on 10 December 2019 in the Saudi capital Riyadh. This unity included Qatar, despite an ongoing land, sea and air blockade of the Gulf state.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and non-GCC member Egypt cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in June 2017 over allegations it supports terrorism. Doha denies the allegations and says the blockade aims to impinge on its sovereignty.
Yet in December 2019, things seemed to take a different turn when Qatar’s foreign minister told a conference in Rome that the Gulf crisis has “moved from stalemate to progress”. He revealed that talks had taken place between Qatari and Saudi officials, without providing further details. The three GCC blockading countries also took part in a regional football tournament in Qatar, reversing at the last minute an earlier decision not to participate.
“While there have been rumours of rapprochement in the past, this time it appears to be different,” April Longley Alley, MENA deputy programme director for the international non-profit organization Crisis Group, told Fanack. “There are strong financial incentives for both sides to end the standoff, and possibly the collective security risk posed by Iran post the Aramco attack could incentivize cooperation.”
The Aramco attack occurred in September 2019, when missiles and drones hit two state-owned facilities in Saudi Arabia, knocking out almost half of the country’s export capacity and around 5 per cent of global oil production. Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, which is battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the attacks although few believed them. One possibility is that pro-Iranian Iraqi militias were behind the strikes.
“Maybe most important is a shift in Saudi Arabia,” Longley Alley added. “Since the Aramco attacks and as the kingdom focuses more on its domestic reform agenda, Riyadh appears to be shedding or reducing its involvement in diplomatically and/or financially costly regional conflicts [like Yemen and Qatar] and taking at least some steps to lower the temperature with Iran.”
She continued, “While both Qatari and Saudi officials are generally positive about the direction of efforts to restore relations, differences remain deep. Even if an agreement is reached, diplomatic relations are restored and the blockade lifted, tensions will likely remain. And while the UAE would need to go along with the Saudis, they may do so only reluctantly, and their relations with Qatar will remain especially fraught and unlikely to mend quickly.”
Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told S&P Global Platts, “Yes, there has been progress between the Saudis and Qataris. On the UAE side [talks seem] to be still fairly locked, and I don’t think it is very likely the Saudis will move along without the UAE.”
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, along with Egypt, are known collectively as the ‘anti-terror quartet’, a moniker that gives them the appearance of being able to influence how other states deal with ‘terrorist’ groups and migrants.
“I don’t think it’s correct to characterize [these countries] as an anti-terror quartet as it implies Qatar supports terrorism,” Tallha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, told Fanack. “The quartet has distinctly anti-democratic characteristics and a spotty record when it comes to human rights abuses in their [own] countries.”
He does, however, see the possibility of a careful rapprochement between Qatar and the quartet. “Ideally, it would be to return to a pre-blockade condition, a status quo ante where the GCC was largely in lockstep, at least publicly, even if they privately feuded. This would mean a restoration of access to each other’s countries amd air spaces and the resumption of meetings involving all the Gulf powers. Egypt is not part of the GCC, but it is very much a junior partner in the quartet and would not continue unilaterally should Saudi Arabia mend fences with Qatar.”
Despite indications that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are willing to put the tensions aside in order to present a more united front during troubled times, there have been no major changes so far. For instance, King Salman of Saudi Arabia invited Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the GCC summit in Riyadh. He refused the offer and sent a junior delegation instead, taunting the Saudis.
“There have been positive noises coming from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but the UAE is clearly unhappy with any increased understanding fostered between Riyadh and Doha,” Abdulrazaq said. “The GCC summit was held in the aftermath of the attack on vital Saudi oil infrastructure, causing shocks to the global oil market and temporarily slowing down supplies. Saudi Arabia was looking for a general condemnation of Iran and its malign activities throughout the region, and it managed to issue a joint communique that was a watered-down version of that. It wasn’t, therefore, a decisive summit and changed very little on the ground.”
What could affect and strengthen the need for unity in the Gulf are the growing tensions between Iran and the United States (US), following the US’ assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on 3 January 2020. A more destabilized region would push regional powers towards cooperation to avoid becoming embroiled in far more complex and global conflicts.