The formal agreement restoring ties among Saudi Arabia and its allies with Qatar was signed at a GCC summit in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, on 5 January. But while analysts see the deal as a victory for Qatar, they warn there is still some way before trust is restored among Gulf partners.
Paris (Brussels Morning) During a summit at the heritage site of AlUla, in northern Saudi Arabia, representatives of the six GCC states announced the end of the blockade on Qatar after the boycott imposed in 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. After months of intense intra-GCC mediation efforts by Kuwait and back-channel diplomacy from the US’s Jared Kushner, the deal was sealed with the statement reaffirming Gulf unity and brotherly relations, a common but quite vague jargon that refrained from touching the thorny past.
The “Solidarity and stability agreement” issued at the beginning of the summit reaffirmed “our Gulf, Arab and Islamic solidarity and stability”, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman told the meeting, thanking the US and Kuwait for their mediation, Al Jazeera reported.
“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”, he added.
It was preceded by a highly symbolic embrace, which went viral on social media, between the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman al-Sa’ud and the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani at the latter’s arrival at AlUla.
The Saudi authorities announced on the eve of the summit that the kingdom was to reopen its airspace and land and sea borders to Qatar, effectively ending more than three years of embargo affecting travel, transports and commercial ties in the Gulf region.
Launched on 5 June 2017, the blockade translated into a diplomatic, trade and travel embargo, isolating Qatar from the entire neighborhood. The reasoning behind this was that Qatar had too close ties with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and militant groups in the region, an accusation that the small emirate strongly rejects.
They further issued a list of conditions for Qatar to abide by to lift the blockade.
While refusing to comply, saying that the conditions violated its sovereignty, Qatar was able to establish alternative trade routes with other states, namely Turkey and Iran, to ensure the basic needs of its population. Apart from a ferocious media war among the Qatari, Saudi and Emirati administrations, the crisis deeply affected people sharing cross-country tribal and family affiliations, as well as workers and students.
The agreement signed on Tuesday is seen as a victory for Qatar, which hasn’t conceded any of the demands presented in June 2017, including shutting the Al Jazeera network and a Turkish military base in the country and scaling back its cooperation with Iran.
Under the terms of the AlUla agreement, which has not been made public, the four blockading countries agree to lift all restrictions imposed on Qatar. The peninsular Arab state also agreed to drop pending legal actions in the World Trade Organization and International Court of Justice, seeking compensation for its isolation. All parties in the dispute have engaged in ending the media smear campaigns.
But observers warn that the deeper causes of the dispute will not dissipate overnight. As the BBC’s Frank Gardner notes, the crisis has been “immensely costly to both Qatar’s economy and to the notion of Gulf unity. Qataris will not forgive or forget in a hurry what they see as a stab in the back by their Gulf Arab neighbours”. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain suspicious over Qatar actually changing course from what they perceive as a foreign policy threatening the Gulf stability.
For French specialist Stephane Lacroix, a “cold peace” is a more realistic outcome of the AUla agreement, rather than a return to pre-2014 relations.
The thorny issue of Qatar’s ties with Iran remains key to the future of intra-GCC relations. It was at the core of the first Saudi-led boycott against Qatar back in 2014, and as Hussein Ibish points out, a third confrontation remains “distinctly possible”.
Iran stands to lose the most following normalization of relations in the Arab Gulf, and risks further isolation after it announced it was increasing uranium enrichment to a bomb-grade level of 20%. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “congratulations to Qatar for the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion”, adding, “Iran is neither an enemy nor threat”.
However, the Qatari foreign minister told the Financial Times that “bilateral relationships are mainly driven by a sovereign decision of the country . . . [and] the national interest”.
“So there is no effect on our relationship with any other country”, he added, pointing towards the Islamic Republic, while calling all the GCC states “winners” after the agreement under Saudi auspices.
With this move, the Saudis are trying to kill two birds with one stone. The timing of the agreement is both a signal of appreciation to US President Donald Trump for having consistently supported the Saudi leadership throughout his tenure and a nod of goodwill towards the incoming Biden administration that they can concede on regional issues, hoping for better bilateral relations. In addition, Lacroix notes, the Qatar issue is viewed as of lesser importance and easier to manoeuver than the much more crucial Yemen case, which is of existential importance for the Saudi crown prince.
In an article for the Middle East Institute, retired US diplomat Gerald Feierstein called the statement “a platitudinous re-hash of old verities”, while also viewing the Saudi foreign minister’s statement on “turning the page” on all points of difference a “likely overly-optimistic reading and more reflective of Saudi preferences than the consensus views of the Quartet states”.
Qatar specialist Kristian Coates Ulrichsen further notes that “there is a risk that the AlUla declaration may suffer the same fate as the 2014 Riyadh Agreement, which lacked safeguards to monitor and verify compliance by all signatories, and itself became an issue of contestation and mutual recrimination after the 2017 crisis began”.
This risk is also highlighted by the UAE’s stance: the Emiratis disagreeing with the Saudi initiative and resisting the move to end the dispute, according to analysis by Foreign Policy. Although they seemingly dropped their opposition to the end of the boycott, the deep-seated ideological rift with Qatar over the legitimacy of Sunni groups in politics remains a deeply polarising regional issue.
According to the Italian Institute for International Studies, it seems difficult that such a profound clash, which has divided the region into spheres of influence, can be completely healed. Reconciliation started with the summit rather than being completed, but all GCC states will benefit from enhanced political, economic and security coordination in dealing with challenges such as Iran, Yemen and the Covid-19 pandemic, reflected Al-Monitor.
Also telling was the fact that neither the King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain nor the de facto ruler of the UAE Mohammed bin-Zayed was present at the summit. Vice President and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who represented his country, said in a tweet: “A positive summit unifying ranks and establishing fraternity… changes and challenges surrounding us require genuine Gulf strength, cohesion and cooperation as well as Arab depth and stability”.
This further points to an underlying crisis in the close pact forged between the Emirati and Saudi leadership since 2015, which was laid bare in recent events, the war in Yemen and the rhetoric against Iran. As Hussein Ibish points out, the Emiratis may have preferred a broader agreement than a bilateral rapprochement between Riyad and Doha that they could not prevent. According to Lacroix, it is important to watch what sort of repositioning the Emirates will opt for vis-à-vis both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Further tensions have not eased in recent weeks. Qatar has repeatedly accused Bahrain over maritime borders and airspace violations with fighter jets. Bahrain, in a letter to the UN Security Council, called the claim “baseless, unfortunate and unrelated to facts”, while condemning Qatar’s “continued provocative and hostile behavior, its sponsorship of terrorism and its interference in the internal affairs of neighboring countries”, the Washington Post reported.
With regards to the need for confidence-building measures before the dispute is finally resolved, Gerald Feierstein notes: “the Jan. 5 agreement looks more like earlier agreements that papered over superficial differences without actually addressing the root causes of the intra-GCC dispute. In reality, these arguments reflect profoundly different perspectives among the member states on the state of the region and the philosophy of relations between governments and their citizens. In that case, it’s likely only a matter of time before the dispute erupts again”.