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By signing the AlUla Agreement on 5 January, the UAE embarked on a complicated task: that of bridging a diplomatic gap. Less than two months earlier, Yousef Al Otaiba, the flamboyant ambassador of the UAE to the US, declared that the lifting of the blockade against Qatar, initiated in 2017 by his country, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, was not going to happen anytime soon. “It is not on the list of priorities. They want to go their way, we’re going to go ours,” he said in a resolute tone. Meanwhile, the Saudis were sending out signals to the contrary, indicating their intention to reconnect with their enemy brother.
And yet, at the beginning of 2021, Mohammed Ben Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, signed a document establishing the renewal of diplomatic and economic relations with Doha, with which the oil-rich kingdom finds itself in ideological opposition with. For Abu Dhabi, even more than for the other members of the quartet, the blockade was indeed highly strategic: it was more or less an attempt to define the parameters of Arab political culture for the coming decades.
A culture where political Islam has no place, Qatar, the small gas emirate, is suspected of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and of cosying up too much to Tehran. The fact that Doha has become closer to Turkey, a paradoxical result of this embargo initiated in June 2017, has only strengthened the UAE’s belief: that in this new geopolitical configuration, there was not much to expect from a reconciliation with this neighbour.
The Saudi will
However neither the Saudis, in a hurry to reassure a new US administration reluctant to give them a free pass, nor the Trump team, anxious to secure a final diplomatic achievement in the Middle East, wanted to hear this argument. When Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, went to the Gulf at the end of November, he did not stop in Abu Dhabi.
Two days after this trip, the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister announced a breakthrough in the conflict between Doha and its Gulf neighbours. “It was then that it [the Emirates] realised it could not prevent a limited bilateral agreement between Riyadh and Doha. It preferred to join a broader agreement,” says Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute think tank in Washington. “If it were up to the UAE, it would have preferred to continue the boycott until Qatar agreed to completely review its foreign policy towards Islamism.”
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The UAE therefore reluctantly signed the AlUla Agreement. “They realised that the Saudis would do it with or without them. They didn’t want to be left out and appear isolated,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a research associate at the Baker Institute Centre for the Middle East (Rice University, USA).
A debate has emerged amongst the small group of commentators working in the Gulf: Should the fact that Mohammed Ben Zayed (MBZ), the UAE’s strongman, did not turn up for this strategic summit be interpreted as a sign of mistrust? Some have argued that Al Maktoum was the quasi-permanent envoy for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meetings, as was the case this time. Others, however, interpreted MBZ’s absence as a calculated gesture.
Abu Dhabi is sceptical
While he welcomed this historic summit restoring “cohesion” in the Gulf, Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs for the UAE, also spoke cautiously about what the AlUla Agreement – the exact content of which is not yet known – would mean for his country’s future.
“Some issues are easier to fix and some others will take longer. We are off to a very good start…but we have issues with rebuilding trust.” On 8 January, the UAE announced the reopening of all air, sea and land borders with Qatar – which is only linked to the peninsula by a road leading to Saudi Arabia – while specifying that “other issues” would be the subject of bilateral talks.
“The Emirates’ scepticism stems from the fact that there is nothing in this agreement concerning Qatar’s alliance with Turkey, its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in the region, including in North Africa and the Horn of Africa,” Ibish said. These rivalries will not disappear, he warns.
Another fear is emerging: that the reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha may lead to a warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The UAE government is at odds with Ankara, and has constantly denounced “neo-Ottoman expansionism” in recent years, whether in Libya, where rivals support opposing factions, or in the eastern Mediterranean.
Towards a reconciliation between Ankara and Riyadh
Invited to comment on the agreement on 7 January, Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an Emirati commentator close to the government, felt that the issue of Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s relationship was undoubtedly “the most important of all.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, moreover, reacted very quickly to the announcement of reconciliation, praising Kuwait’s mediation efforts and sharing his hope that the blockade would be completely lifted. As a reminder, Turkish President Erdogan had immediately demonstrated his support for Qatar following the announcement of the embargo, by deploying troops to a Qatari base.
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The lifting of the blockade against Qatar was at first conditional on 13 demands, including the closure of this military base. None of the 13 demands, including the closure of Al-Jazeera, were mentioned in the agreement. The warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will allow Ankara to seek an increased understanding with Riyadh without jeopardising its alliance with Doha.
Reconciliation therefore seems very precarious, and there is no guarantee that a new conflict will not break out in the future. “There will certainly be a decrease in tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are the key players of this agreement. But I don’t think there will be a resolution, or concessions in the disputes between the UAE and Qatar, particularly in Africa,” said Ibish.
“I expect this to continue, although all the Gulf countries will probably be more focused on domestic issues over the next two years because of economic difficulties, COVID-19, political transitions and instability.”
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