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Kushner leaves Qatar blockade talks in the Middle East empty handed

Reports emerged of a possible breakthrough, but details were scant.

Analysis | Middle East

Jared Kushner returned to Washington, DC from what may be his last official trip to the Middle East after a short visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a last-ditch attempt to resolve at least a part of the Gulf crisis before the Trump administration leaves office in January.

Accompanied by Avi Berkowitz, the White House Special Representative for International Negotiations, and Brian Hook, who worked on reconciliation efforts during his recent stint at the State Department, Kushner met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom — site of the secret November 22 meeting between the Crown Prince, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha. 

In the aftermath of Kushner’s meeting with Emir Tamim on December 2, media outlets, including Bloomberg and Al Jazeera, reported that a preliminary agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was imminent. Speculation also swirled on social media that Kuwait, which has sought to mediate throughout the Gulf crisis, might issue a statement on a “breakthrough.”

The reports suggested that the outlines of the deal focused on reopening Saudi airspace to Qatari air traffic and potentially reopening the Saudi-Qatar land border as well. Both measures would effectively have ended the blockade of Qatar launched on June 5, 2017 by a quartet of states including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia, as Qatar would have regained air and land access closed for the past three and a half years.

And yet, no announcement of a deal, preliminary or not, to end or ease the Saudi part of the blockade of Qatar was made, as an eventual statement by Kuwait’s Foreign Minister on December 4 referred only to “fruitful discussions” and a “keenness” to reach an eventual agreement.

The statement provided no specific details and all parties, including the Saudis and the Qataris, are remaining very tight-lipped about Kushner’s visit. It’s possible that commitments are still being worked out. It’s also possible that any agreement on bilateral confidence-building measures or dispute resolution mechanisms simply will not be made public now, but instead given time and space to evolve. 

Officials may also be mindful of the acrimonious fallout from a Trump-coordinated September 2017 telephone call between the Qatari Emir and the Saudi Crown Prince, which ended up leaving the two countries farther apart in its aftermath. The upcoming Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, set to take place in Riyadh later in December, may provide a venue for further announcements, especially as the GCC now operates under a Kuwaiti Secretary-General.  

If Kushner is looking for reasons to be optimistic about ending a crisis that erupted on the Trump administration’s watch, he might note that the Saudis and Qataris are engaging bilaterally and that the maximalist 13 demands that the four blockading states tried to impose on Doha in 2017 have been replaced by a set of issues that can at least serve as a basis for negotiation.

The 2017 conditions included demands that Qatar shut Al Jazeera, sever diplomatic relations with Iran, pay reparations for unspecified damages to the blockading states, and submit to intrusive monitoring for 12 years to ensure compliance. The demands looked as though they were designed to be rejected, so as to justify the quartet’s contention that Qatar was uninterested in engaging with its neighbors.

Moreover, the fact that Saudi and Qatari officials have been engaging each other seems like a  surer pathway toward reconciliation than the unwieldy four-versus-one nature of the blockade, where diverging interests in reaching a settlement, especially from the harder-line UAE approach, come into play.

In addition, the optics from both sides have been cautiously optimistic, just as they were in a previous period of dialogue in November 2019, when hopes of a possible breakthrough were similarly raised. And yet on that occasion, initial progress did not ultimately result in a reconciliation agreement, just as weeks of quiet negotiation in July 2020 over lifting the airspace restrictions also failed to reach a deal. Some experts attributed the breakdown of the July talks to UAE reluctance to support a U.S.-backed Saudi-Qatar agreement. 

Abu Dhabi remains unwilling to engage with Qatar. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s Ambassador to the U.S.,  on November 16 that reconciliation with Qatar was “not on anyone’s priority list.” Gaps have widened in recent weeks between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on a number of regional issues, including Yemen, oil policy in OPEC+, and relations with Turkey.

There are also signs that the personal relationship between Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed may not be as close as it used to be. It may be to the Emiratis’ advantage to create an image of distance between themselves and the Saudis in the eyes of the incoming Biden administration and shift away from the assumption of the two countries moving in lockstep.

Regardless of what transpired behind closed doors in Kushner’s meetings, it has become apparent that diplomacy is not as easy as he thinks. He cannot simply fly in and seal a deal to end a crisis that has become deeply entrenched in the politics of the region. It will take a lot of time and sustained effort by all parties to rebuild ties of trust and confidence and any agreement will be the start of a longer process of reconciliation rather than an endpoint or a return to a pre-2017 status quo ante.

And while the Trump White House would like to claim another “success” in the Middle East before he leaves office, the decision to blockade Qatar in 2017 was rooted in the “alternative facts” free-for-all that marked the chaotic opening months of Trump’s presidency. It is proving far harder to pick up the pieces of a crisis that now looks set to be one of the many legacy issues that await President-elect Biden’s in-tray in January.

Jared Kushner, left, senior advisor to President Donald J. Trump, speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before leaving Ramstein Air Base, Germany, en route to Baghdad, April 3, 2017. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro
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