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Diplomatic Thaw in the Gulf, a Superficial Unity?

Diplomatic Thaw in the Gulf, a Superficial Unity?
 Anne Gadel
Former CEO of the Open Diplomacy Institute

An interesting case of sporting success mirroring political symbolism occurred when, on January 6, Qatari pilot Nasser al Attiyah won a third consecutive stage in the Dakar 2021 rally which-somewhat ironically-takes place in Saudi Arabia this year. The previous day, Qatari Emir Tamim al Thani attended the 41st Summit of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG, or GCC), stepping onto Saudi soil in the presence of his Gulf counterparts for the first time in three and a half years. This followed the January 4 announcement of Saudi airspace being reopened to Qatari airlines. The sight of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (MBS) and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, embracing on Al-Ula's tarmac was as surprising to the world at large as it was for the Emir. The photo op was a success, the image spoke for itself. 

For over a year, there were signs that a diplomatic rapprochement was brewing: the Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah bin Khalifa al Thani attended the Mecca Summits of May 30 and 31, 2019, followed by a secret meeting between MBS and Tamim on the fringes of the new Emperor of Japan’s enthronement ceremonies in autumn 2019. Late on January 5, the Al-Ula Agreement, an "agreement of solidarity and stability", was signed. The result of many months of Kuwaiti mediation, boosted by the Trump administration's support-including the involvement of the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who attended the GCC Summit-marked the restoration of diplomatic relations between the Saudis and the Qataris. 

The Gulf States face twin challenges, namely Biden’s accession to power and the resumption of discussions with an increasingly offensive Iran-their intent evidenced by the January 5 announcement that Iran would resume uranium enrichment up to 20% purity. Faced with this, does the stated desire for unity among the Gulf leaders presage a real diplomatic and geopolitical turning point in the region? 

This thaw was inevitable for several reasons

The crisis that had been going on since June 2017 was dangerously dividing the United States’ strategic allies in the region. However, although it is undoubtedly a primary vector for accelerating improved relations between the Gulf countries, the Trump administration’s policy of applying "maximum pressure" against Iran is not the sole explanation. 

The Gulf States face twin challenges, namely Biden’s accession to power and the resumption of discussions with an increasingly offensive Iran.

First of all, the diplomatic isolation and embargo of Qatar have not achieved their intended results. On the contrary, it is considered yet another diplomatic setback suffered by the Saudi Crown Prince after he took office in 2015. Through stronger alliances with Iran, and even more so Turkey (Qatar’s investments in Turkey reached nearly $22 billion in 2019), Qatar has demonstrated some economic resilience. 

Diplomatically, the emirate seems to be the main winner from this de-escalation: its foreign policy has not changed and, since the crisis began, the Qatar has stood firm in the face of events. Everything leads us to believe that this will continue, along with a strengthening of Qatari ties with its major regional and global partners (Russia, China) and a further international soft power "offensive." Previous examples of this soft power include Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain’s purchase of Brazilian striker Neymar in July 2018, as well as the announcement that the 2019 World Athletics Championships would be held in Doha. During his meeting with the Emir on July 15, the French Foreign Minister was also invited to visit the future "National Museum of Qatar," designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. 

The Al-Ula Agreement likely presents Trump with a final diplomatic victory in the region, in addition to the series of normalization agreements signed by Arab countries with Israel. However, it mainly presents an opportunity for MBS and, to a lesser extent, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) to send a somewhat equivocal signal to the Biden administration. The new American president may choose to read it as a symbol of the Sunni leaders’ goodwill in overcoming their antagonisms towards Qatar and presenting a united front on fundamental issues. However, the willingness of the Saudi and Emirati leaders to set aside their differences with Qatar could read as a reflection of their ability to oppose signs of openness that this administration will give to Iran, in the event that the Vienna Agreement (JCPOA) is renegotiated. It is also an opportunity for the Saudi prince to reorient his diplomatic approach towards posing as a champion of Gulf unity, thus beginning to restore his tarnished image on the international scene following the Khashoggi affair. By placing himself as a figure of reconciliation between feuding Gulf states, he may be able to buy himself time and present himself as a regional champion that Biden would find it difficult to be without. Despite this, it is unlikely he will enjoy the same broad support with the new American president as he has with Trump, as Biden is likely to quickly cut off military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Lastly, it’s important to state that a more unified region will be stronger in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the resultant long-term economic consequences, particularly those pressing upon the oil market. Concerned over global demand in the face of the pandemic, on January 5, Saudi Arabia announced a further reduction in oil production for February and March, within the framework of the OPEC+ agreement.

Unlike other regional organizations, economic cooperation in the CCASG is relatively flexible and contingent on the individual requirements and goals of its member states. At the same time, particularly in the area of taxation, greater convergence has long been envisaged in order to support national plans for economic diversification. Following the announcement of the diplomatic thaw, significant investment flows are expected between Gulf states, particularly in sectors such as construction, that have been worst affected by the pandemic. 

A more unified region will be stronger in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the resultant long-term economic consequences, particularly those pressing upon the oil market.

Chances of a lasting reconciliation are fragile due to deep strategic disagreements and structural antagonisms 

It is not insignificant that the Summit took place in Saudi Arabia rather than a neutral country such as Kuwait or Oman. This can be interpreted as a sign that tensions remain and that regardless of anything else, agreements on diplomatic concessions will continue to be slow and difficult to reach. Moreover, the Qatari Foreign Minister did not attend the pre-summit in Manama in December 2020.

The structural antagonisms between the countries of the region are long-standing: Saudi grievances against Qatar date back to the 1990s and peaked in 2014, culminating in the blockade of 2017. In 1992, a border dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar led to several clashes. The 1995 overthrow of Emir Khalifa al Thani by his son Hamad, who was both more critical and independent of Saudi Arabia than his father, aggravated existing tensions. The following year, Hamad created the Al Jazeera channel, the figurehead of Qatari soft power assertion on the international scene. Qatar’s conciliatory attitude towards the protestors during the Arab Spring of 2011-2012 marked a break with the policies and interests of its neighbors. This was because Al Jazeera provided de facto support to the Tunisian, Egyptian and Bahraini revolutionaries, movements which emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the Saudis and Abu Dhabi detesting the Brotherhood as the direct adversaries of Saudi Wahhabi political Islamism. In 2013, the countries of the region allegedly signed the Riyadh Agreement, along with a supplementary agreement and an executive mechanism for 2014, within the framework of a CCASG meeting. With the first agreement, the Gulf states promised not to support ‘hostile media,’ an obvious reference to Al Jazeera. Provisions had reportedly been made in the additional agreement to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. And under the terms of these agreements, Qatar would pledge not to interfere in the policies of its neighbors. In March 2014, diplomatic tensions reached their peak; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors for a few months. In 2017, the arrival in power of Donald Trump, who visited MBS in May 2017, appeared to give the Sunni leaders a blank check to contain Qatar. It’s worth recalling that during the President’s visit, several contracts were signed with Saudi Arabia, valued at a total of approximately $380 billion. One politico-media imbroglio later, the crisis commenced in June 2017.

Moreover, significant strategic differences remain, particularly over Iran. The Omanis preach engagement, the Kuwaitis act as the mediators and the Saudis and Emiratis are the confronters. While this approach is more controlled between Abu Dhabi and Tehran, it is more aggressive between the Saudis and the Iranians-in response to the strategy of Oman and Kuwait’s roles. Importantly, the signing of the Al-Ula agreement does not represent Qatar’s unequivocal endorsement of the containment strategy towards Iran, pushed by the Sunni leaders. Qatar has also stated that it will not change its relationship with its Turkish ally, with whom economic and strategic relations have strengthened since 2017. The antagonistic positions in Sudan, Libya and Somalia are also unlikely to be resolved after the apparent rapprochement in Al-Ula. The deep mistrust that crystallized among the states of the region during the Gulf crisis is indicated by the rapid modernization of the Qatari air force, which has leaped in numbers from only 12 combat aircraft in 2017 up to 96 by 2020.

The biggest winners at the end of the Qatari blockade are the Arab monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco. They will no longer be preoccupied with taking sides after three and a half years of diplomatic gymnastics.

While Qatar has already provided some tokens of goodwill, such as the softening of Al Jazeera’s editorial line and the freezing of legal proceedings before the World Trade Organization and the International Court of Justice, the breach of trust has gone beyond the diplomatic sphere and has directly affected populations. The crisis has torn families apart, polarizing public opinion against a backdrop of profound societal and economic upheavals. The impacts of the crisis on Gulf societies will be felt for a long time to come. 

Opportunities and challenges: geopolitical consequences for the countries of the region

As we can see, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had good reasons for reconciliation, whereas other states - first and foremost the United Arab Emirates - entered into the agreement more reluctantly. A lasting "cold" peace may be the result, in which there will be winners and losers. 

The biggest winners at the end of the Qatari blockade are the Arab monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco. They will no longer be preoccupied with taking sides after three and a half years of diplomatic gymnastics aimed at maintaining good relations not only with Qatar but also with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to analyze their future foreign policy moves, although Abu Dhabi’s influence will undoubtedly remain strong in both Amman and Rabat. 

Egypt, whose relations with Qatar have been frozen since July 2013, will remain cautious about what it considers to be Qatari "interference" in their internal affairs, particularly Qatar’s links with the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in the Libyan conflict. Overall, however, the agreement serves as excellent news for Cairo. Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia, wants to restore its image in the eyes of the new American administration while continuing to work towards securing important reconstruction contracts - as well as further, more substantial economic deals - with Qatar. It now has free rein to play both sides of the divide, as demonstrated with the inauguration of a palace belonging to a Qatari hotel group in Cairo, in the presence of the Qatari Finance Minister, the day after the signing of the Al Ula Agreement. However, Sisi will have to spare his ally the UAE, and his absence at Al Ula was certainly a useful precaution in this regard. 

For "mediating" Kuwait and "neutral" Oman, who refused to align themselves with Saudi Arabia in 2017, the diplomatic de-escalation that occurred on January 5 presents the opportunity for an invaluable détente. Both states have seen a new generation of leaders come to power in 2020; it will be interesting to observe their attitude in the coming months, especially over the war in Yemen. Will the Sultanate of Oman more cautiously challenge the Sunni leaders now that Qatar has lost its status as the region’s scarecrow, or will it be reassured by the failure of the blockade?

Further out, Turkey and Pakistan will benefit from the reconciliation process both politically and economically. Ankara and Islamabad will be expected to contribute towards the implementation of a stronger Iranian containment strategy. However, it remains to be seen whether Doha will be amenable and diligent to facilitating a dialogue between Erdogan and MBS.

The United Arab Emirates, who would have been happy with the post-2017 status quo continuing for years to come, are clear losers of the diplomatic move. The relationship between MBS and MBZ will certainly be put to the test, and the recent normalization of relations with Israel is therefore particularly welcome in balancing the regional strength of Abu Dhabi’s allies. 

Meanwhile, Iran is the biggest loser of all. The reopening of Saudi airspace to Qatari flights means losing the $100 million a year windfall that the Emirate was paying Tehran for overflights of its airspace. Even if the nations of the Gulf remain without a unified strategy towards Iran, as we have discussed, these signs of a détente will not work in Iran’s favor in the immediate future. 

Finally, as a natural counterpart of the deal, Qatar will need to be less critical of Saudi policy in Yemen. Now compelled to provide signs of friendship to its new Saudi "best enemy", it will nonetheless stand alongside Kuwait and Oman in calling for an end to hostilities. Yemen, after all, remains the great loser of any geopolitical reconfigurations in the Gulf, even in times of relative warmth. 




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