Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/Reuters
The blockade of Qatar has ended, but the Gulf rift persists

When Emir Tamim al-Thani of Qatar landed in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to attend the 41st annual meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he was greeted at his plane by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. While normally such a welcome from a hosting head of state would not draw headlines, it is extraordinary under the circumstances. Up until today the two men and their countries had been bitterly estranged. 

Tamim’s visit was preceded by an announcement Monday from Kuwait’s foreign minister that Saudi Arabia would lift the blockade of Qatar. The blockade had been in place since June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt ended all relations with Qatar and imposed what they referred to as a “boycott,” sealing off the border to Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s only land bridge, as well as much of the surrounding air space.

The announcement that Riyadh would reopen land, air, and sea links with Qatar signaled real progress in resolving the Gulf rift that has divided the GCC, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on one side, Qatar on the other, and Kuwait and Oman trying to remain neutral.

On Tuesday the countries signed a “Solidarity and Stability” agreement: the blockading countries will lift the blockade of Qatar, while Qatar will rescind lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain filed with the World Trade Organization. The countries also agree to end their media campaigns attacking each other.

Yet despite the warm reception Tamim received from MBS upon arriving, the Gulf rift is far from healed. The underlying sources of tension remain unresolved, and the mistrust and anger on both sides are likely to persist, due in part to three-and-a-half years of negative press and propaganda.

Two weeks after imposing the blockade in 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies issued 13 demands, which in their extremity were seen as “designed for rejection.” Yet the demands did identify several real sources of concern, including Qatar’s ongoing relations with Iran — which the years of blockade only strengthened —  a Turkish military base in Qatar, and the usually strident criticism emanating from the Qatari network Al Jazeera (although the network has toned down its critique for the past several weeks, likely in anticipation of a potential resolution).

Qatar’s support for Islamist groups remains problematic in the eyes of the de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, who views groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the main threats to the region. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and MBS view Iran and the groups it assists, including the Houthi movement in Yemen, as a more significant source of danger than Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Therefore, the end of the blockade signals a degree of movement in the Saudi/Emirati calculus vis-à-vis the desirability of resolving the rift with Qatar. As recently as November, the influential Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, had said that resolving the Qatar dispute “was not on anyone’s priority list.” In contrast, in early December, the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan stated that an agreement with Qatar was “within reach.”

The latest developments also reflect expectations in the region about the incoming Biden administration. By normalizing relations with Israel in August, the UAE had already cemented its status on the list of America’s key regional partners, regardless of who won the U.S. presidential election.

In contrast, the Saudis expect to face political pressure from Biden, who has described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” and has committed to ending arms sales. By working to mend the rift with Qatar, the Saudis may hope to also convey their constructive utility as a regional partner, or perhaps deflect attention from their ongoing bombardment of Yemen. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE initiated the blockade of Qatar two weeks after Trump visited Saudi Arabia during his first trip abroad as president in May 2017. Although the Trump administration had expressed interest in coordinating America’s Gulf partners against Iran as Trump prepared to leave the JCPOA, the Saudis and Emiratis pushed a narrative in which Qatar played an equally damaging role in sponsoring terrorism. 

An advisor to the UAE, George Nader, paid $2.5 million to a Trump fundraiser, Elliott Broidy, to help persuade Trump that Qatar was an enemy, despite Qatar hosting Al-Udeid, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. Broidy used some of the funds on an anti-Qatar conference held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish registered lobbying group in Washington, at which then-Representative Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee at that time, announced legislation designating Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism. These and other instances of political corruption were later revealed in the Mueller investigation.

Blindsided by the blockade and the apparent green light from the Trump administration, the Qataris launched a lobbying blitz, including the establishment of the Qatar-America Institute. In May of 2020, the QAI was required to register as a foreign agent after receiving $5 million from Qatar, and subsequently rebranded as the Qatar-America Institute for Culture. In general, the lobbyists for all three Gulf monarchies benefited significantly from Trump’s openness to monetary persuasion and eagerness to sell weapons. 

The incoming Biden administration will likely welcome the easing of tensions as one less foreign policy headache left behind by the Trump administration. Yet although Tamim and MBS may feel prepared to hug and make up, Biden should hold all the Gulf regimes responsible for ongoing abuses, most egregiously the Saudi war on Yemen, the imprisonment and torture of human rights activists by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Qatar’s mistreatment of migrant workers as it races to prepare for the 2022 World Cup. Indeed, Biden should consider the Saudi and Emirati leaders’ willingness to overlook their frustration with Qatar as primarily reflecting their determination to oppose his administration’s likely outreach to Iran. Due to the Trump administration’s extreme antipathy towards Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt they could concentrate on other grievances, like Qatar. Now faced with the possibility of the US rejoining the JCPOA, MBS and MBZ are effectively circling the wagons, trying to reunite the Arab Gulf states in order to refocus attention on the perceived threat from Tehran.

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