Saudi Arabia has lifted its blockade of Qatar after a three and a half year stalemate. So what triggered a change of heart?
Despite so many headlines out of the Middle East being about events which exacerbate regional tensions, news about significant improvements in Saudi-Qatari relations on the eve of this month’s Gulf Arab summit in the ancient Saudi city of al-Ula was a welcome development.
A breakthrough in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis finally took place on January 4 with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Amhad Nasser Al Sabah announcing an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that will likely lead to a major easing of the Gulf dispute that began in mid-2017 when Riyadh — along with Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — suddenly severed diplomatic and economic relations with Doha.
This Saudi-Qatari agreement is a milestone for Kuwaiti officials who have worked hard to bring the two sides of the GCC’s Qatar rift toward a settlement. For the Sultanate of Oman, which like Kuwait has been neutral in this Gulf feud, this breakthrough is positive as Muscat strongly supports efforts aimed at cooling regional tensions and finding diplomatic solutions to the Middle East’s conflicts and disputes.
Of course, the US was critical to this agreement, but mostly due to Saudi concerns about the incoming administration’s foreign policy. Riyadh wants some goodwill with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris against the backdrop of many issues that have harmed the image of Saudi Arabia — and specifically its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — in the eyes of many Democratic lawmakers in Washington.
Under the deal, Saudi Arabia opened its land, air, and sea borders with Qatar on the eve of this month’s GCC summit. In exchange, Doha will drop its lawsuits against the blockading states. Although this easing of Saudi-Qatari tensions will not fully resolve the GCC dispute, nor even address the root causes of this crisis, it bodes positively for regional stability.
“I doubt we will see a sudden increase in cooperation among the [GCC] states, which have failed to even make their militaries compatible over the past forty years and which have divergent interests and relationships with external powers,” wrote the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin. “However, anything that lessens tension in the region should be welcomed and let’s hope this leads to more diplomacy and fewer threats and acts of violence.”
This major step toward Saudi-Qatari reconciliation gives officials in Doha good reason to feel confident about their decision to stand strong throughout the past three-and-a-half years. Never did Qatar pay the price of relinquishing sovereignty (via the 13 demands set forth by the blockading states in 2017) in order for Qatar to restore its relations with Riyadh.
But what do other powers in the region have to gain or lose from this breakthrough in Saudi-Qatari relations?
For Turkey, this news is positive. After the GCC crisis broke out in mid-2017, Turkey was one of the first powers to come out strongly against the blockade. In fact, the month that the siege of Doha began, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the blockade as “un-Islamic”. In terms of national defence, food security, diplomacy, and other domains, Ankara played a critical role in terms of giving Doha the confidence to stand strong in the face of the blockade.
Yet as Turkey seeks an improved relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf crisis has undermined the prospects for an Ankara-Riyadh rapprochement. But with Saudi-Qatari relations moving in a positive direction, Turkey can build a stronger relationship with Riyadh without undermining the Turkish-Qatari alliance.
Moreover, Qatar’s ability to defy the blockading states has been a boost to the image of Turkey as an increasingly influential power in the region because of the extent to which the Turkish-Qatari military base and presence of Turkish military personnel in the sieged Gulf Arab country contributed to Qatar’s deterrence.
Unlike Turkey, Iran is no winner.
That said, Tehran may not lose out from Saudi-Qatari reconciliation as much as some pundits might argue. Ultimately, since the GCC’s establishment nearly 40 years ago, Iran’s foreign policy has sought to exploit divisions within the sub-regional Arabian institution. There is no denying that Tehran was a major beneficiary of the Gulf dispute when it erupted three-and-a-half years ago as the crisis offered Iran an opportunity to bring its partnership with Qatar to new heights.
As Doha had essentially no choice but to turn to Iranian ports, airspace, infrastructure, etc., Tehran was able to move much closer to Qatar after three of its fellow GCC members and Egypt began trying to pressure the gas-rich emirate into meeting their unreasonable ultimatum.
That said, Iran knows that the Qataris are not on the verge of joining an anti-Iranian Arab coalition because Doha will not trust Riyadh throughout the foreseeable future despite this month’s agreement.
Moreover, given the fact that Qatar never met the demand that Doha cool its relations with Tehran, officials in the Islamic Republic must take comfort in knowing that the Qatari leadership never helped the US administration and Saudi government isolate Tehran just to score points with Riyadh.
Of all states in the Middle East, it is fair to argue that the UAE is the least pleased about Saudi Arabia easing its stance against Qatar. Abu Dhabi’s anti-Qatar agenda largely pertains to its ideological disputes with Doha which concern questions about political Islam and whether or not Gulf Arab states should support or oppose the emergence of its power centres in the region.
Put simply, Abu Dhabi is far more rigid than Riyadh in terms of its position against Qatar. “I really find it hard to see UAE policy towards Qatar changing much after the [January 2021] GCC summit,” tweeted Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University. “Beyond the ideational rift, they have too many intersecting rivalries across the Maghreb, North Africa, and the Qatar-Turkey relationship as obstacles.”
At the same time, throughout 2021 there will be good reason to expect Saudi-Turkish relations to improve alongside an easing of friction between Riyadh and Doha while the Gulf Arab states adapt to the new realities of post-Trump US foreign policy.
Within this context, officials in Abu Dhabi may find it increasingly challenging to bring more Arab/African states on board with an anti-Turkey coalition that the Emiratis began constructing in October 2019 when Ankara launched Operation Peace Spring.
Doubtless, if the Saudis truly distance themselves from the UAE’s coalition against Ankara while improving their relations with Qatar and Turkey, there could be major implications for a host of conflicts from Libya to the Levant to the Horn of Africa.
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