Hopeful talk of a thaw in the Arabian Gulf crisis, which began in June 2017, has emerged following a series of developments involving the parties to the conflict: a bloc comprising Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates against the State of Qatar. With Egypt as an enthusiastic partner from outside the Gulf, the group accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and siding with Iran against them. They severed diplomatic relations with the peninsular nation and imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on it. Kuwaiti and American efforts failed to find a compromise solution to the crisis because the embargoing countries insisted that Qatar address satisfactorily a set of 13 demands before they would consider resuming relations with Doha and ending their siege and boycott of the country.
The easing of tensions and resumption of full and respectful relations between all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cannot come soon enough. The Gulf and the wider region today are at the precipice of a deep and threatening chasm that cannot be bridged without collective and committed efforts by all members of the council and others in the region. The peoples of the area should no longer allow elite differences to threaten their well-being, security, and future, especially since this discord has only produced lasting animosities, persistent instability, bad governance, and missed opportunities. But while positive signs of a thaw may be abundant, those pursuing it would do well to address the difficulties that stand in the way of achieving warmer relations.
Positive Signs of a Thaw
There have been encouraging signs that the parties are approaching a resolution of the crisis. First, Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani attended a GCC emergency meeting last May in Mecca to discuss collective security concerns following attacks on oil tankers and Saudi Arabian oil pipelines. That visit was the first by a Qatari official to any of the three countries since the boycott and siege began. Second, the Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, was reported to have made an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia last November. Neither the Saudi nor the Qatari governments clearly confirmed or denied the report, thus practically guaranteeing that some diplomatic work did take place.
Third, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE participated in the 24th annual Gulf Cup soccer tournament, held in Doha November 26–December 8, despite a ban on travel to Qatar by the three boycotting countries. While the Saudi team and its supporters flew directly from Riyadh to Doha, the Emirati players arrived via Kuwait, thus showing that the UAE government still has some reluctance about abandoning the boycott. Fourth, and finally, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has formally invited Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to participate on December 10 in the GCC’s 40th summit meeting, to be held in Riyadh. The summit had been slated to convene in Abu Dhabi this year but was relocated to Riyadh, most likely reflecting the UAE’s reluctance to host Qatari officials and reminding everyone of the potential limits of reconciliation.
With such developments, it is not hard to see that at least a partial thaw is possible and is in the offing. Two specific arguments have been proposed as strong reasons for the embargoing countries to see the wisdom of such a thaw. In an opinion piece in Middle East Eye, Andreas Krieg highlights a political argument, saying that the boycotting nations have finally realized that GCC unity is preferable to division and that the council should rely on collective action to face its challenges. What has helped them arrive at this conclusion is the apparent chaos in the Trump Administration’s policies in the Gulf and the wider region, including the lack of response to Iran’s actions and the sudden withdrawal from Syria, as well as President Trump’s retreat from supporting their anti-Qatar stance. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s re-engagement with Iran over the last few months––and the UAE’s precipitous withdrawal from Yemen––may have simply punctured whatever arguments they had against Qatar’s alleged close relations with the Islamic Republic.
Justin Gengler, on the other hand, advances an economic argument in Al-Monitor about the thinking of the blockading countries, saying that the Qatar embargo has not benefited them. In fact, the siege and blockade that they imposed, intending to deprive Qatar of its trade relations and limit its diplomatic outreach, have actually affected them negatively. Importantly, the high cost of their foreign policies has forced them to make painful cuts in public programs and domestic spending. Even foreign direct investment has not been forthcoming to finance ambitious economic plans, compelling budget cuts and retrenchment. One such plan was the last ARAMCO Initial Public Offering that was poorly received by investors.
The political and economic arguments encapsulate the rationale for the thaw in Gulf relations and justify the hope that the upcoming GCC summit will be the needed ice breaker. At 38, the GCC has not lost the initial justification for its creation and sustainment: a combination of a healthy caution about the security of its states with care regarding their economic well-being. Presently, only an emphasis on unified, collective action and self-reliance can preserve the prosperity of GCC states which has been their lot since the council was first envisioned in 1981. The last few years have proven, without doubt, that individual leaders’ stridency and ambition at the expense of others are foolhardy policies that lead to the gradual weakening of the united whole. Undeniably, a reconciliation in the GCC cannot come soon enough.
But There also Are Nagging Negatives
As GCC states prepare for the summit in Riyadh and for the putative reconciliation, there remain signs that the positive developments will not simply transform the GCC crisis into mere water under the bridge. Arab Center Washington’s Khalil E. Jahshan reiterates a set of challenges that must be considered in resolving the crisis: doubts about non-recurrence, lack of trust in the GCC, and Qatar’s sacrifice of some independence. He correctly adds that perhaps the most difficult obstacle is overcoming the mobilized public opinion on both sides of the dispute. To be sure, over the last two and a half years, the peoples of the Gulf have been exposed to fusillades of antagonistic rhetoric, especially from the blockading countries; their leaders cannot simply wish this away and decide to kiss and make up. While the publics of the different Gulf monarchies defer to their leaders in this and other matters of import, they cannot be expected to turn over a new leaf and resume the pre-June 2017 business as usual.
There also are negative signs that speak to what can be called an underlying reluctance to reconcile among members of the elite—although in the end everyone will accept what the leaders will decide at the upcoming summit. For example, when asked about news of the Qatar foreign minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia last November, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir responded that the kingdom is still waiting for Qatar to answer the 13 demands of June 2017—i.e., nothing has changed. On November 25, The Arab Weekly, a UAE-affiliated English language publication, helped popularize a bogus right-wing American report originally aired on Fox News about Qatar having advance knowledge of attacks on oil tankers near the UAE in May. Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton blamed those attacks on Iran.
Perhaps the most recent negative sign came on December 2 with the Saudi and Emirati rejection of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) jurisdiction over Qatar’s suit, which claimed that the boycotting countries had discriminated against Qatar’s citizens when they imposed the air blockade. The Saudi and Emirati representatives at ICAO defended their position by stating that Qatar has not upheld its obligation to fight “terrorism and militancy” and that the matter is political and not technical. In other words, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE still believe that Qatar is guilty of malfeasance and treachery—the same accusations they leveled against Doha when the crisis first began.
In addition to these hindrances in attitude and stance, there are the 13 original demands of Qatar, one of which is ending any relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist organization by all blockading nations. Another is closing the Turkish military base on Qatari soil. It is doubtful that Doha would accommodate what Riyadh, Manama, and Abu Dhabi want in both regards, first because it sees the Brotherhood issue as strictly a domestic matter and, second, because construction of the base has already been completed. Other demands concern severing good relations with Tehran, closing all media outlets, paying reparations, and practically changing foreign policy preferences. All these demands were rejected by Qatar because they represented an outright interference in the country’s affairs; indeed, no accommodation during the GCC summit is likely to change that.
A Less Than Full Reconciliation Is Expected
Given the arguments for reconciliation and the doubts surrounding current affairs and outstanding issues, it is likely that the upcoming GCC summit will witness a limited reconciliation that avoids a resolution of thorny issues. After all, it is hard to continue to abort Kuwait’s efforts to secure a thaw in intra-GCC relations, especially that its prime minister, Sabah Khaled Al Sabah, asserted that the summit would achieve the feat. It also will not serve Qatar’s interest or image to refuse an invitation to the summit from none other than Saudi King Salman while Doha has maintained its openness for compromise since the early days of the current crisis. As of this writing, however, Doha has not announced whether its emir, Tamim bin Hamad, will head his country’s delegation or will allow his prime minister, Abdullah bin Nasser, to go in his stead. The preference would be that the former participate in the summit.
With the UAE still showing signs that it is not ready to reconcile fully, the issue of relations with the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to remain outstanding. So will that of relations with Turkey. The UAE has taken a very strident position vis-à-vis the organization and that country and has pledged to challenge their perceived successes in Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, and other countries. That this stance may negatively impact the degree of success of the GCC summit in Riyadh is a foregone conclusion; but for now, the Saudi leadership may be amenable to simply breaking the ice with Qatar instead of achieving a full accommodation. Such minimalism may be warranted since Qatar has announced it will neither compromise its independence nor accept a deal without assurances that the crisis will not recur.
Finally, the Trump Administration can play a critical role in paving the way for warming relations between its Gulf allies. The United States must again show that it is neutral in the dispute and interested in dealing with the GCC as a collective whole, not as individual actors. Granted, bilateral US relations with the states of the GCC are important, and agreements have been signed regarding arms sales, economic and strategic collaboration, and fighting terrorism and its financing. But long-term interests of the United States and its GCC allies remain best served with an emphasis on collective action, dynamic cooperation, and a commitment to safeguarding the original vision of integrating the efforts and endowments of the GCC states.
Republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.