Until recently, officials from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE repeatedly expressed serious doubts about their participation at the FIFA world cup championship in Qatar 2022 (if qualified). However, at the last minute, they decided to play in this year’s Arabian Gulf Cup competition in Qatar, in what could be the first sign of a thaw in the countries’ strained relations.
While the arrival of boycotting nations was a pleasant surprise, events on the ground came as an even greater shock as the underdog, Bahrain, defeated three-time champion Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the finals.
Despite not reaching the finals, the Qatari hosts seized the opportunity to properly welcome their guests and organized the celebratory event without a single incident. In contrast, Emirati spectators threw garbage at Qatari players during the Asian Cup in January-February 2019 and no Emirati official attended the medal awarding ceremony after Qatar’s victory in the finals.
Many have jumped to the conclusion that the boycotting states’ decision to participate in the Arabian Gulf tournament is a big step towards solving the Gulf crisis.
Many have jumped to the conclusion that the boycotting states’ decision to participate in the Arabian Gulf tournament is a big step towards solving the Gulf crisis. Emirati academic and advisor to UAE rulers, Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, even tweeted that an end to the Gulf crisis could come “sooner than expected.”
But is that really conceivable?
According to Wojciech Grabowski, a professor at Poland’s University of Gdansk specializing in international relations in the Middle East, intra-regional disputes do not serve the policy of maximum pressure on Iran conducted by the U.S. — which the Gulf countries have gone along with for many years.
On the other hand, the combination of events such as the missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil installation at Abqaiq last fall, the tanker sabotage near the UAE coast, and Trump’s lack of response to these incidents, has made the U.S. look like an unreliable partner, as James Dorsey, a prominent scholar and expert on Middle East soccer points out.
“These aggressive policies have created nothing but a wreckage in the region and beyond (whether it be a war in Yemen or boycott of Qatar) and ended as failures.”
Dorsey observes that there has been a certain reversal of the UAE and Saudi foreign policy initiated back in 2011 which could be described as a go-it-alone approach. “These aggressive policies have created nothing but a wreckage in the region and beyond (whether it be a war in Yemen or boycott of Qatar) and ended as failures,” said Dorsey. He believes the Saudis are now attempting to follow the UAE and dial down the tensions in the Gulf through at least indirect talks with their rivals including Qatar, in order to bring the rift to a manageable level.
According to analysts Khalid Al Jaber and Giorgio Cafiero, there is no doubt that burning issues with Iran and Washington’s efforts to unite the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) against Tehran have been the major reasons for Riyadh’s and Abu-Dhabi’s softer stance towards Doha and their symbolic gesture of attending the tournament in Qatar.
According to Grabowski, the real diplomatic efforts took place behind closed doors before the sports event. “During an official meeting between GCC senior officials there was contact between a Saudi and Qatari counterpart,” he told Inside Arabia. “This would never happen without a royal directive.”
Consequently, many hoped that the sportive and reconciliatory spirit of the tournament would also impact the 40th GCC summit held in Riyadh just a few days later, especially as the Qatari Emir was also invited. But the summit concluded with no mention of the rift between the countries and Qatar’s prime minister attended instead; which was still the highest-level representation at the annual gathering in years.
There has been no substantial change, except maybe the fact that there has been much less hostile rhetoric in the news and on social media.
“[The Emir] would attend the meeting only in the case of some fundamental change—for example in the case of boycott lifting,” said Dorsey—adding that the Qatari Emir has been absent from the GCC summits since 2017. Also, the boycott is still in place and there is no sign of softening the embargo. In short, there has been no substantial change, according to Dorsey, except maybe the fact that there has been much less hostile rhetoric in the news and on social media.
For Grabowski, the absence of the Emir of Qatar was a missed opportunity to break the deadlock; although he admitted that even if there were signs of reconciliation, its scope would have been limited.
Moreover, there is still the question of the 13 demands laid out by the blocking states in 2017. Doha has not met them yet and there is no elegant way around it, without the boycotting states losing face against the small but resilient emirate.
In Grabowski’s opinion, Qatar cannot meet all 13 requirements, as closing Al-Jazeera or breaking relations with Iran or Turkey are not options. This means that both sides should find a compromise and withdraw from their positions. In this context, Dorsey assumes that Al-Jazeera might be more cautious about reporting on Saudi Arabia, but it would be very interesting to observe whether this would be applied in both Arabic and English news services. He also thinks that Qatar is under no pressure from anyone to meet these demands. “Qatar is not Iran and [the] boycott does not hurt Qatar in a way that it would be persuaded it to change something,” he added.
“Qatar is not Iran and [the] boycott does not hurt Qatar in a way that it would be persuaded it to change something.”
Nevertheless, an unidentified Saudi official who, according to Dorsey, could be Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, said in November that Qataris made progress in combating the funding of terrorism. This may be a sign of normalization and a face-saving formula for Saudis, as they push Qatar to meet the demands.
While the relationship between Qatar, KSA, and the UAE will improve eventually, the question is to what extent and when? Dorsey thinks that Saudi Arabia could face a problem as Qatar will not simply agree to return to its pre-embargo state while the Emiratis are not necessarily willing to play ball.
The damage has been done, and it would be naïve to expect Doha to simply walk off from the path it has taken after the blockade and return to the Arab Gulf fold like before. Qatar has established close ties with Turkey, Iran, and other key international players, so it is unlikely that it will give up its independent foreign policy to restore economic and trade relations that would make it dependent on its GCC neighbors.
It seems, lasting reconciliation will take more time and effort; but there is still hope as Qatar World Cup 2022 draws closer.