Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies agreed on Tuesday to restore diplomatic relations with Qatar and restart flights to and from the country, ending a three-year boycott of the tiny gas-rich nation.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in mid-2017 after accusing the country of supporting terrorism. Qatar has repeatedly denied the accusations. The boycotting countries, known as the Arab quartet, also cited political differences with Qatar over Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha, unlike its Gulf neighbors, has friendly relations with Tehran, supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has hosted groups affiliated with the Islamist group.
Qatar’s only land border – which it shares with Saudi Arabia – was sealed shut. Boycotting countries closed their airspace to Qatar, and nearby Bahrain and the UAE closed their maritime borders to ships carrying the Qatari flag.
“Whether it’s the returning of diplomatic relations, flights … all of that will go back to normal,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal told a news conference, announcing a declaration between the nations had been signed.The signing took place during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in the Saudi city of al-Ula, where Qatar’s leader Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani met former regional foes.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received Sheikh Tamim, who set foot on Saudi soil for the first time since the start of the crisis, on the airport tarmac. The two leaders hugged, and images of the warm welcome were widely shared on regional social media.
Sheik Tamim described the agreement in a tweet as a “defining moment.” “I thank the brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the generous welcome and I thank the brotherly State of Kuwait for its valued efforts,” he wrote.
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said he was optimistic the agreement would be implemented quickly, but he was more cautionary about future relations with Qatar. “Of course, you always know that following a rift such as the one that we have had, the issue of rebuilding confidence is one that takes time, takes some energy and takes a lot of transparency,” he said.
During the signing of the statement, the Saudi Crown Prince called on Arab states to join ranks to counter the kingdom’s regional archrival, Iran.”Today, we are in dire need to unite our efforts to advance our region and face the challenges that surround us,” said bin Salman. “Especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, and its destructive sabotage projects that are adopted by (Iran’s) terrorist and sectarian proxies and their activities that are aimed at destabilizing security and stability in the region.”
Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who is credited with helping to usher in the detente, was in the room where the agreement was being signed. A public reconciliation between Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani appears to set the stage for a Gulf detente.
‘A bright new page’
Ahead of the summit, Kuwait’s foreign minister announced Monday that Saudi Arabia would reopen its airspace and borders to Qatar. Kuwait, which has mediated the crisis since it began, said the final agreement was the result of a call between Kuwaiti Emir Nawaf al Ahmad al Sabah, the Qatari Emir and the Saudi Crown Prince.
Bin Salman was elevated from Deputy Crown Prince to Crown Prince a month after the start of the dispute, and is widely seen as an architect of the Qatar boycott. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who is not attending the GCC summit, was also seen as a driving force behind the bid to isolate Doha.
The embargo came at a time of heightened tensions with Iran, and fractured Gulf Arab unity. The quartet presented 13 sweeping demands, including the closure of Doha’s pan-Arab TV station Al Jazeera, ending Turkey’s military presence in Qatar, and curbing diplomatic ties with Iran. As the dispute apparently nears an end, it is unclear if any of the initial preconditions to end the spat have been met. Al Jazeera continues to broadcast, and Doha’s relations with Iran and Turkey appear intact. The details in the statement signed Tuesday were not released.
The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said Tuesday’s summit marked the beginning of “a bright new page.” Saudi Arabia first signaled that a breakthrough on the Qatar crisis was afoot last month. Regional pundits say that Riyadh may be expediting a resolution in order to improve its standing with the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.
Saudi Arabia has has strong relations with the Trump White House, which empowered their bid to contain Iran. But a Biden presidency may put them in uncharted waters. As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and has vowed to end Washington’s “blank check” to the kingdom.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia breakthrough is more exhaustion than compromise. Talk of brotherly unity rather than lessons learned dominated the Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
The meeting on Tuesday between Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was hailed as a breakthrough that brought together two feuding parties who were finally willing to resolve their differences.
But as the two leaders gathered at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the north-western Saudi region of Al-Ula there was no mention of concessions, or further ultimatums, such as those that had led to the rift. The detente seemed borne more of exhaustion than compromise; the talk more of brotherly unity than lessons learned, and the end to it all more about the incoming US president than regional realpolitik.
Wins from the three year dispute, which saw Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the GCC oust Qatar from the alliance amid a list of seemingly unmet demands, are hard to define. Not so the cost, both economically and politically. Qatar bore the burden of the former, while Saudi Arabia shouldered much of the latter, but the final toll has fallen on the very issue that the Saudi-led sanctions aimed to safeguard – Gulf solidarity.
When the ambitious heir to the Saudi throne, together with the UAE ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, moved against Qatar in late 2017, the charge sheet against the tiny Gulf state was long. They, and other GCC members, as well as Egypt, accused their neighbour of backing Iran’s ambitions, and supporting Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood – a preoccupation of the UAE leadership.
A growing alliance with Turkey was also seen as a threat, and the removal of a Turkish garrison from Qatar listed as another demand. By Riyadh’s reckoning, its recalcitrant neighbour could be brought to heel, and the region would know that Saudi Arabia was under new management and not afraid to assert itself so visibly.
Except, it didn’t work out that way. Qatar, the smallest – and richest per capita – of the Gulf states had long tried to position itself as a go between on regional issues, a country that could serve all parties, without being beholden to any. It contested that its relations with Iran and support for opponent groups should be viewed through that prism, and dug in as the accusations flew from Saudi Arabia and UAE. It had the reserves to sweat out blockades and a friend in Turkey, which it could – and increasingly did – turn to.
Qatar and Turkey became closer than ever over the last three years. Together with the remnants of Egypt’s opponents, in exile in Turkey, they became the linchpin of an axis, up against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt– who see their regimes as more aligned with Arab nationalism, and view the rival alliance as a strategic threat. In Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Egypt, state media helped deepen the fault lines and enmity replaced any chance of reconciliation.
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia had led attempts to break the ice, receiving the Qatari foreign minister and hosting the national football side. However, it took events further away to force a breakthrough – the ousting of Donald Trump – a staunch Saudi ally – from the White House, and the imminent arrival of Joe Biden, whom GCC leaders fear will take a softer line on an even bigger foe, Iran.
After Biden’s election win last November 2020, resolving the Gulf dispute became a lead priority. It could be cast as a trust building measure to the incoming president; something to take to the table when talk turns to Iran, with whom the Trump regime had avowedly tussled.
Qatar, preparing to hold the 2022 football World Cup could do without further headaches, and also benefit from a diplomatic reset. Its precondition for a rapprochement was that it not be seen to be cowed into concessions.
And, as talk in Al-Ula turned to fraternal bonds and common foes, there was no attempt to grandstand by either side. State media in Qatar had dutifully changed its tune, with Al Jazeera Arabic airing a breathless tribute to the Saudi capital Riyadh, and it’s Saudi counterpart touting unity. A cooperation agreement was signed in private – unlike the public shaming of 2017.
Wounds however, remain raw. And it remains to be seen whether rallying against a common foe – Iran will be enough to overcome a spat that is seen in some regional and global circles as pointless and damaging. A fear remains that the detente may only tape over a fault line that has deepened over three unnecessary years.
Egypt signs reconciliation deal with Qatar
Egypt says it appreciates sincere efforts made to achieve reconciliation between Arab quartet and Qatar. The Saudi foreign minister has said that Saudi Arabia and its three Arab allies agreed to restore full ties with Qatar. His remarks came after Gulf leaders signed a “solidarity and stability” agreement in Saudi Arabia as they met for the Gulf Cooperation Council annual summit on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia on Monday announced the reopening of land borders with Qatar after a three and a half-year spat that saw the kingdom, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain cut diplomatic and trade ties and impose a land, sea and air blockade on the Gulf state.
The quartet accused Qatar of, among other things, supporting opponent groups and being too close to Iran, allegations that Qatar has consistently denied. While the Saudi decision marks a major milestone towards resolving the Gulf crisis, the path to full reconciliation is far from guaranteed. The rift between UAE and Qatar has been deepest, with the UAE and Qatar at sharp ideological odds.
Qatar crisis: Saudi Arabia and allies restore diplomatic ties with emirate
Diplomatic relations have been restored between Qatar and four Arab states that imposed an embargo against it for three years, the Saudi foreign minister says. Prince Faisal bin Farhad told reporters that the countries had agreed to “fully set our differences aside” at a Gulf Co-operation Council summit on Tuesday.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince publicly embraced the emir of Qatar. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism. The tiny, gas- and oil-rich state denied the accusation and rejected the conditions for ending the partial blockade, including closing the Doha-based Al Jazeera broadcast network and curbing relations with Iran.
In recent months, Kuwaiti and US mediators stepped up efforts to end the stand-off. At Tuesday’s summit in the Saudi heritage site of al-Ula, leaders of the six GCC member states signed an agreement that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said affirmed “our Gulf, Arab and Islamic solidarity and stability”.
“There is a desperate need today to unite our efforts to promote our region and to confront challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction,” he added.
Later, Prince Faisal told a news conference: “What happened today is… the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations.” On Monday night, Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen its land and sea borders and airspace to Qatar.
The lifting of the embargo on Qatar has taken months of patient,painstaking diplomacy, mostly by Kuwait, but with increasingly urgent prodding from the White House as the Trump presidency draws to a close. The three-and-a-half year “blockade” has been immensely costly to both Qatar’s economy and to the notion of Gulf unity.
What was the dispute about?
Qatar has long practiced an ambitious foreign policy with different priorities to some other Gulf states, but there are two key issues which have angered its neighbors in the past decade. The other key issue is Qatar’s relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field. The Shia Muslim power is Sunni Muslim-ruled Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival.
Who cut links with Qatar?
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed all diplomatic and trade ties. Qatar’s only land border was closed; ships flying the Qatari flag or those serving Qatar were banned from docking at many ports; and much of the region’s airspace was closed to Qatari aircraft.
The countries presented Qatar with 13 demands as conditions for ending the embargo. They included closing Al Jazeera and other Qatar-funded news outlets, downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran, closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, and ending “interference” in other countries’ internal affairs.
Qatar refused to comply, saying it would not agree to “surrender” its sovereignty and that the “blockade” by its neighbors violated international law. The emirate quickly established new trade routes with Iran and Turkey to ensure the basic needs of its population of 2.7 million were met, and used its oil and gas wealth to prop up its economy. Two states in the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council did not cut ties with Qatar – Kuwait and Oman. Kuwait served as a mediator in the dispute.
What led to the breakthrough?
US President Donald Trump unexpectedly sided with Saudi Arabia and its allies at the start of the dispute, denouncing Qatar as a “funder of terror” despite the emirate hosting the largest American military facility in the Middle East, al-Udeid airbase. But Mr Trump’s aides subsequently persuaded him to take a more neutral stance, and in 2018 he praised Sheikh Tamim’s work on combating terrorist financing at a White House meeting.
Kuwaiti mediation efforts appeared to make little progress until late last year, when the Trump administration intensified pressure on all sides for an end to the stand-off that thwarted their efforts to assemble an alliance of Sunni-led states to counter Iran and its proxies.
Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in December, and reportedly flew to al-Ula on Monday to attend the summit. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar signed a new agreement Tuesday, signaling a possible end to longstanding tensions between the two countries since the summer of 2017.
The move may also mark a shift for President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda as both countries are US allies in the Gulf region and the US has a large military base located in Qatar. Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani signed the agreement in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. They greeted each other at the airport with a long hug.
This moment comes over three years since Saudi Arabia first ended diplomatic relations, trade ties and travel with Qatar, cutting off the country’s access to Saudi airspace, ground entrances and seaports.
That summer, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain issued 13 demands of Qatar, including that Qatar dismantle its news media agency, Al Jazeera, and scale back its diplomatic relationship with Iran. The countries also accused Qatar of backing terrorist organizations and urged it to end its links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new agreement reverses Saudi bans on Qatari people and business entering the country. In response, Qatar has ended its international lawsuits filed against Saudi Arabia for shutting off its airspace and borders.
Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, and White House adviser, was also present at the signing. The Trump administration originally supported Saudi Arabia in its actions against Qatar but then began attempting to foster an agreement shortly after. This development is seen as a sign that Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries are making way for setting the table for better relations with the incoming US-Biden administration on January 20, 2021.