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Saudi Arabia ends its Qatar blockade, but dispute is not over

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Wednesday, 6 January 2021 13:09, updated on Thursday, 7 January 2021 19:37

Saudi Arabia Gulf Crisis
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center right, greets the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as he arrives at Al Ula airport on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The agreement was announced on the evening of 4 January, bringing to a close one of the worst diplomatic crises in the Gulf region’s history.

With a solemn but visibly pleased air, the Kuwaiti foreign minister made the announcement on the evening of 4 January after a phone call involving Kuwait’s Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and defence minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).

“[I]t was agreed to open the airspace and land and sea borders between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Qatar, starting from this evening,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser Al-Sabah said. After a more than three-year-long blockade on Qatar, the decision brings the crisis to an end. The country’s only link to the Arabian Peninsula passes through Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi government ordered the closure of its border with Qatar on 5 June 2017.

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At that time, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Cairo jointly severed ties with the small emirate, criticising it on a grab-bag of grounds: its relations with Iran, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged plot to destabilise its neighbours via its state-run broadcaster Al Jazeera.

The decisive role of Kuwaiti diplomacy

The announcement was made ahead of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, which kicked off on 5 January in the north-western Saudi city of Al-Ula, with the Kuwaiti foreign minister calling the meeting an opportunity for “reconciliation”. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud opened the summit by urging “regional unity”.

In a tweet put out by Al Jazeera arabic, the caption reads: “Saudi Crown Prince embraces the Emir of Qatar upon arrival in Al-Ula.”

Back in 2017, the Gulf states that imposed the blockade on Qatar issued 13 demands, including the shutdown of Al Jazeera, they wanted met to end the crisis. “Most of these demands were readily discarded. Al Jazeera’s shutdown is out of the question, though the network is already changing its tone regarding Saudi Arabia,” says Shathil Nawaf Taqa, Middle East advisor at The Global Diwan.

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In recent weeks, particularly in the wake of Joe Biden’s US presidential election victory, Saudi officials expressed their willingness to resolve the crisis. According to many observers, the outcome of the US election was a major factor in Riyadh’s decision, as the Saudi government is looking to please the incoming administration, fearing Biden’s team will be less hostile to Iran than Trump’s.

The Trump administration also appears to have played a pivotal role in ending the crisis, in keeping with its strategy focused on winning as many diplomatic successes as possible in the region ahead of the president’s departure from office on 20 January – and with a view to the 2024 presidential election. However, Kuwaiti diplomacy was particularly decisive in the favourable outcome, as the country has a very active hand in regional conflict mediation.

A ‘slap in the face’ for the UAE

“In any event, it was clear that it was going to happen. The Saudis and the Qataris made several attempts to find a solution for the conflict, but they kept hitting a snag when it came to the UAE’s influence,” says Taqa, who performed legal work regarding the blockade for the Qatari authorities.

“It’s a slap in the face for the UAE, which will be forced to grudgingly go with the flow,” says Quentin de Pimodan, advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS). “Saudi Arabia had sought to temper Abu Dhabi’s enthusiasm on several issues, including the war in Yemen [Abu Dhabi and Riyadh support opposing factions, editor’s note], oil production and the normalisation of relations with Israel.”

De Pimodan, a Gulf region expert, also brings up the unfriendly remarks made by the Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal regarding said normalisation with Israel on 6 December, right after the UAE and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. He adds: “And then MbS is trying to carve out his standing as head of state. But up until now, he has come off as a disciple of Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The Saudi’s decision provided a way for MBS to put Riyadh in the spotlight at the GCC, paying no heed to the views of the other states hostile to Qatar.”

A snowball effect?

Both experts agree that none of the disputes pitting Qatar against its neighbours, especially the UAE and Bahrain, are over yet. “This particular aspect doesn’t get a lot of attention, but the Kingdom of Bahrain’s hostility towards Qatar has been the most persistent, and the kingdom has accused the country for a long time now of interfering in its internal affairs,” de Pimodan says.

“It’s in part due to Bahrain’s repeated grumblings about Doha that the other countries in the region came to view Qatar as a potentially dangerous state,” he adds. After a swirl of rumours that Bahrain would not participate in the GCC meeting, the crown prince of the small kingdom ultimately responded to King Salman’s invitation in the affirmative.

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And what of Egypt, whose main criticism levied at Doha involves Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 2011 revolution and the military coup that took down Mohamed Morsi in 2013? “If Saudi Arabia throws all its weight into this matter, the other states will fall in line,” says Taqa. But according to de Pimodan: “The UAE are not going to call it quits and when Qatar makes the slightest misstep, they’re sure to use it as a pretext to blast Doha with a fresh round of criticism.”

As for Turkey, which formed a particularly cosy relationship with Qatar during the blockade, Doha could soon ask, as a sign of goodwill, that Turkey reduce its military presence on its soil. Turkish forces expanded their footprint there shortly after the blockade took effect, at a time when the Qataris feared a Saudi coup.

“Although Qatar has projected a high level of resilience over these last years, it’s aware of the regional balance of power; the crisis couldn’t go on forever. Qatar Airways, for one, has experienced severe economic fallout,” says Taqa. After the Kuwaiti foreign minister announced the end of the blockade, Qatar decided to drop its complaints against its neighbours.

A legal battle and extensive media coverage

The diplomatic crisis gave way to a legal battle and uncommonly vehement media coverage, while remaking alliances, with Turkey opting to back Doha. This strategic and ideological antagonism made its mark on situations and issues as diverse as Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Indeed, Qatar passes itself off as a supporter of the Arab Spring and other protest movements throughout the Arab world, while the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia are accused, including during the Hirak movement in Algeria, of propping up counter-revolutionaries and military regimes modelled after Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Several Africa countries also severed their ties with Doha in response to Saudi pressure.

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To strong-arm Doha and persuade it to scale back its international ambitions, its neighbours decided to close their airspace and land and sea borders to Qatar for three years, forcing Qatar Airways planes to use Iranian airspace and separating many families made up of nationals from different Gulf states.

For its part, Qatar responded by attacking its neighbours within the confines of international institutions, where it frequently won its cases, such as before the International Court of Justice. The country also leveraged its media reach, particularly during the scandal involving the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.