Conflict Alerts # 207, 7 January 2021
In the news
On 5 January, the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed to Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia, accepting an invitation from the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to attend the 41st Gulf Summit. On 4 January, the Abu Samra border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was opened after more than three years of blockade.
The summit witnessed the 'solidarity and stability' deal (also referred to as the Al-Ula statement) that calls for the end of the diplomatic blockade with Qatar and paves the way to wider negotiation space to extinguish the tensions with Doha. The deal was welcomed by several members of the Arab World as well as Iran. Egypt also signed a reconciliation agreement with Qatar during the summit.
The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, under whose oversee the blockade was put in place in 2017, stated that he hopes to see a unified effort towards confronting challenges in the region, most prominently, the threat posed by Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programme.
Issues at large
First, the failure of the Qatar blockade. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a diplomatic and trade blockade on Qatar. The quartet accused Doha of its alleged support for terrorist outfits, its close ties with Iran and Al Jazeera's role in exacerbating the Arab Spring crisis. However, Qatar denied the allegations. Since the blockade's imposition, none of the objectives for which it was imposed, could be achieved against Qatar.
Second, the emergence of a strong Qatar. With the assertive policies steered by Emir al-Thani, Qatar has emerged as a more resilient state since the blockade. It had gradually adapted to the regional conditions and has devised ways to sustain its economy despite the blockade. Qatar has been continuing to have a working relationship with Iran.
Third, a divided GCC. Diverging interests and geopolitical imperatives of the concerned parties had delayed an opportune moment for the dispute to be resolved. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was rendered inefficient and weak as the members stood divided. Kuwait and the US have consistently used their diplomatic resources to bring the rift to an end.
Fourth, the US policies towards the Middle East. It has been consistent with bringing all its allies - including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the same page. The lifting of blockade should be seen as a part of the American pressure.
Despite the signing of the reconciliation deal and the quartet's willingness to mend their relations with Qatar, much has to be dealt with to comprehensively cement the GCC's fissure. MBS has come to realize Iran a bigger threat that needs to be resisted, and Gulf Arab solidarity an instrumental for this purpose. The Middle East's recent geopolitics has been dynamic, with Arab states like the UAE and Bahrain normalizing relations with Israel.
Tensions between the UAE and Qatar have been much deeper. In November 2020, the Foreign Minister of the UAE said that the Gulf reconciliation with Qatar was not even a priority. The two Gulf states were at loggerheads since 2018 over a racial discrimination case at the International Court of Justice. Moreover, Doha had suspected UAE's hands in using Israeli spyware to hack information about Al Jazeera journalists.
Qatar stands firmly determined about the Palestinian cause by not agreeing to establish formal relations with Israel until a two-state solution is arrived at. While the reconciliation is set to improve the economic and diplomatic integration in the GCC, strong divergences of interest between Qatar and the other Persian Gulf Arab states over significant regional issues and concerns set the target point for complete reconciliation very high.