While the recent Gulf summit in Saudi Arabia put an end to the three-and-a half-year gulf rift, it has also raised questions about Qatar’s relationship with Iran.
Last month, as America embraced the Biden-Harris administration, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan al Saud, hailed a breakthrough deal which ended the three-and-a-half-year Gulf siege against Qatar.
The quartet comprising Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt had abruptly severed ties with Qatar and launched a political and economic blockade on June 5, 2017, accusing the tiny gas rich nation of terrorism and close links to Iran. Flights, diplomatic ties and economic trade between Qatar and the quartet were suspended.
Three and a half years later, the Al Ula declaration, brokered by the former Trump administration, Oman and Kuwait, and signed by Qatar during the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia, put an end to the rift.
The exact contents of the declaration are unknown. But signatories to the deal have agreed not to “infringe on the sovereignty, threaten the security or target the social fabric” of the other participating states.
Meanwhile, the siege propelled Qatar to seek and forge alternative economic, travel and trade partnerships outside the GCC bloc, primarily with Turkey and Iran. Saudi’s Almarai products sold in Qatar supermarkets were replaced with Turkish and Iranian supplies. Qatar re-routed planes via Iran, and Qatar Airways was paying at least $100 million for use of their airspace. Instead of severing ties, Qatar deepened its ties with Iran.
Since last year, Qatar has become increasingly vocal about mediating peace talks between the US and Iran. Back in July 2019, when the Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani met former US President Donald Trump in Washington DC, this was not the case.
Trump announced in May 2018 that the US would withdraw from the Obama-approved nuclear program, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since then, relations between the US and Iran have soured.
The two countries came close to conflict in 2019 after blasts hit four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The West blamed Iran, allegations they denied. More sanctions were imposed against Iran, and the US designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation. Iran responded by designating the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organisation.
The Qatar foreign ministry did not respond to TRT World's questions about Qatar’s political ambitions as a mediator.
Speaking with TRT World, Ali Fathollah-Nejad, author of ‘Iran in an Emerging New World Order,’ explains that Doha may hope to fill in the void Oman has left. The demise of Oman’s leader Sultan Qaboos last year and the absence of former Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi - key figures in facilitating the Oman ‘backchannel’ which eventually paved the way for the Iran nuclear deal - has prompted Doha to increase its geopolitical influence.
Fathollah-Nejad said Doha could be an ideal mediator as it has good relations with both Iran and the US. Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base is the largest American military outpost in the Middle East; with Tehran, Qatar shares the world’s largest natural gas field, the South Pars/North Dome.
Also, Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ibrahim Al Hashimi said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE both welcomed the agreement between the US and the Taliban which was facilitated by Qatar, implying there is no hesitation if Doha wants to lead the Iran-US diplomatic efforts.
Bahrain, a spanner in the works
Even though diplomatic relations between the quartet are restored and the blockade lifted, Samer Shehata, Associate Professor of Middle East studies at Oklahoma University, tells TRT World there is tremendous mistrust between these countries.
The mistrust Shehata is referring to surfaced yet again when Bahrain’s foreign minister in a tweet accused Qatar of not doing much to solve its problems with Manama, two weeks after signing the Al Ula agreement. Bahrain’s foreign ministry did not detail the exact problems. A source in the Qatar foreign ministry, who wishes to remain anonymous, responded by saying this seems like Bahrain’s efforts to ruin the reconciliation.
The quartet issued thirteen demands to put an end to the siege - some of which were to shut down Al Jazeera, close a Turkish army base and reduce ties with Iran within ten days. Qatar did not concede on any of the demands.
Al Hashimi, meanwhile, is convinced the relationship is moving forward and with the blockade lifted, Saudi and Egyptian officials will be in Qatar in a matter of weeks, if not days.
But for Fathollah-Nejad, Bahrain’s move was a de facto sign of dismissing any mediation role by Doha on grounds that it is still seen by them as being too lenient on Iran and unfit to act as mediator.
Bahrain has in recent years integrated quite closely with Abu Dhabi and in many ways acts as a proxy of Abu Dhabi’s interests in the Gulf, Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in Security Studies at King's College London, tells TRT World.
While reliant on Saudi Arabia for political and economic support, Bahrain, like the UAE and Saudi, is suspicious of Iran. Since the UAE gained independence in 1971, Abu Dhabi's relationship with Iran has been primarily contentious, owing to long-standing territorial disputes in the Persian Gulf. Krieg says Bahrain has now increased its financial dependence on the UAE while seeing more ideological synergies with Abu Dhabi.
Biden administration, Qatar or Oman?
Krieg says there is currently no willingness across the GCC to engage with Iran multilaterally as each gulf state has decided to manage the relationship with Iran bilaterally. Both Oman and Qatar have good relations with Iran, which they have used as backchannels to de-escalate in times of crisis.
Apart from hosting secret talks between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s contested nuclear program, Oman was also a key negotiator for the release of foreign nationals held hostage by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Shehata believes it will largely fall on the Biden administration and not Qatar or Oman to increase trust between the US and Iran, as well as faith in the possibility of reducing tensions, forging a new nuclear deal and the eventual normalisation of relations.
The circumstances that brought Tehran and Doha together make some wonder if Iran can fully trust Doha given its close US ties.
Last month, Tehran rejected a suggestion from Qatar to mediate the release of a South Korean tanker seized by the IRGC. Therefore, Doha’s proposals may indeed produce the opposite result of what it aimed for, Fathollah-Nejad observed.
An ideal way to approach this would be for Qatar to internally agree with Saudi and the UAE before going into such negotiations, Fathollah-Nejad said. For it was Qatar’s independent-minded foreign policy that also angered the GCC.
Meanwhile, Americans are currently not really prioritising the Middle East in their foreign and security policy outlook, said Krieg.
“Their engagement with Iran has taken a variety of roots and it is entirely plausible that Qatar will be one of these new avenues now.”