Saudi Arabia and Qatar have appeared to get closer to signing a deal to end the Gulf dispute, but the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt still have reservations.
Since June 2017, Qatar, a tiny Gulf country with rich gas reserves, has faced a tight blockade from its neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, which are backed by Egypt.
The Saudi-UAE-led block accused Qatar of having close relations with Iran and backing a popular movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which they fear and perceive as a potent political threat that may one day topple their monarchical rules.
But after three years, cracks have become visible in the anti-Qatar alliance, with Riyadh wanting to end the blockade despite continuing opposition from the UAE. Abu Dhabi follows an aggressive posture across the Middle East from Libya to Yemen, where it has not minded to ally with forces hostile towards Riyadh.
“They [the Emiratis] don't even mind competing with Saudi Arabia, showing their willingness to overtake the kingdom,” says Mithat Rende, a prominent expert on the Gulf, and a former Turkish ambassador to Qatar.
The Emiratis have bought weapons worth billions of dollars and dared to send warplanes to western Libya to bomb Turkish-backed forces, Rende says.
“They even sent warplanes to Crete to participate in joint military maneuvers with Greece, cooperating with France [against Turkey],” says Rende, who was also the former chairman of the Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Executive Committee.
“They appear to take on a regional leadership role, attempting to undertake tasks, which could not be implemented by them. As a result, some tensions have arised between them and Saudi Arabia because they don’t listen to the advice of Riyadh anymore,” Rende tells TRT World.
Bulent Aras, professor of international relations in the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, thinks that one of the main reasons behind the Gulf blockade against Doha was a struggle for regional supremacy between the Saudi-UAE alliance backed by Egypt and Turkey-Qatar alliance.
“But now there are questions inside Saudi Arabia on how sustainable this political competition could be for the kingdom,” Aras tells TRT World, referring to increasing differences between the UAE and the Saudi kingdom.
As a result, “a backchannel diplomacy” led by the US and Kuwait, another Gulf country which has refused to join the blockade against Qatar, has been initiated to end the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to Rende.
“Months ago, I had foreseen this kind of rapprochement. We all thought that under the mediation of the US and other forces, this disagreement between brothers will phase out step by step,” says Rende.
With the recent Gulf tour by Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser at the White House, the backdoor diplomacy has reached a semi-official level, Rende says.
"We have made significant progress in the last few days thanks to the continuing efforts of Kuwait but also thanks to strong support from President Trump," said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud during a video conference.
Doha also nodded, confirming the views of their Saudi counterparts on the progress of the Gulf talks.
“We confirm that we are engaging in these talks constructively, positively and sincerely in order to advance the interests of the Gulf people,” said Qatar foreign ministry spokesman Lolwah Al Khater, according to Doha-based Al Jazeera.
“The Gulf normalisation with Qatar will begin with opening humanitarian connections and continue with lifting air and land blockade,” Rende says.
“The US is the ultimate decider in the Gulf. No Gulf power could go against the wishes of the US and Washington wants to end this dispute,” Rende observes.
Arab-Israel normalisation effect
For Rende, the US has two main reasons to end the dispute between Qatar and other Gulf states.
First, the US wants to create a joint Gulf front against Iran. For that reason, Qatar, which historically has a better diplomatic understanding with Iran and shares a geographic proximity with the Shia-majority country, should be brought back into the Gulf alliance.
The blockade pushed Qatar to increase its trade relations with Iran, creating a source of revenue for Tehran under heavy US sanctions.
“Trump wants to block this relationship in order to further corner Iran,” says Aras, the Doha-based professor.
In order to limit Iranian influence, Washington also wants to reactivate the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has recently lost much of its political appeal, as regional powers have been fiercely competing with each other, according to Rende.
“They clearly exaggerate threats posed by Iran [to raise their policy objectives],” he says.
The other reason has to do with the Trump administration’s pressure on Arab states to normalise their ties with Israel, the former Turkish diplomat says.
“Washington wants to spread UAE-Bahrain normalisation with Israel across the Gulf in order to implement its normalisation policy in the region,” Rende says.
“There is a connection between normalisations and the Gulf crisis and major developments in the region and the Gulf,” says Aras.
Before Biden comes to power, Aras says, the Trump administration wants to remove obstacles like the Gulf blockade to persuade Riyadh to normalise relations with Israel.
Kushner, an Orthodox American Jew and a defender of Zionism, who also appeared to be the main figure behind the recent UAE-Bahrain normalisation deal with Israel, recently visited the Gulf to find a lasting resolution to tensions between Qatar and its neighbours.
After all, Qatar hosts the US Centcom in the Gulf, so it cannot be left behind for too long. At least 10,000 American soldiers are presently stationed in Qatar.
Beyond the US military presence, Qatar also hosts big American financial investments.
“Exxonmobil and other big energy firms have very big investments in Qatar,” says Rende.
“Kushner does not want to leave this issue to the incoming Biden administration. His little interests might also play a role. He might also want to cut out Biden’s ways in the Gulf [and wider Middle East],” Rende says.
Both Trump and Kushner are also rich businessmen. Trump has already signalled that he might run again in 2024 elections.
“Pompeo’s recent visit to the Gulf is also remarkable. It’s clear they do not want to leave their policies unfinished before January 20,” says Rende, referring to both Arab-Israeli normalisation and calming Gulf tensions.
A Saudi-UAE rift?
Despite the Trump administration’s best efforts, the Emirati officials, along with both Bahrainis and Egyptians, continue to preserve their silence on the talks, signalling their coldness towards a comprehensive agreement to end the Gulf dispute.
But the same UAE leadership appears to do everything possible to deepen its relations with Israelis while Saudi Arabia continues to stay away from normalising relations with Tel Aviv, leading to a political fracture between leading political clans inside the kingdom.
“For Israel, the UAE has much strategic importance. Israelis know very well that the best route to infiltrate to the Gulf passes through Dubai in terms of selling their weapons, technology and everything else. If you get Dubai, you get the Gulf,” Rende says.
“The UAE is a perfect candidate for Israeli manipulation,” he adds.
Aras thinks that Saudi connections with the Middle East and particularly, the Gulf, is very different from the UAE in terms of the kingdom’s historical and political ties with other countries and dynasties.
“Saudi Arabia’s historical, regional and political projections do not correspond to the kingdom being a side in a regional competition between the UAE and Qatar,” Aras concludes.