Almost six months after the Saudi- and Emirati-led blockade of Qatar ended, there is some genuine desire among governments in the Middle East to let bygones be bygones and move past this intra-Arab rift.
Following the historic al-Ula summit in Saudi Arabia on January 5, 2021, Egypt was the first Arab state to renormalize diplomatic relations with Qatar. At this juncture it appears that Egypt and Qatar have agreed to work together in various areas when it is mutually beneficial despite lingering ideological frictions between them. Ultimately, this is a positive development for the region and one which the U.S. administration should encourage.
Shortly after the al-Ula summit, Qatar’s Minister of Finance went to Egypt to inaugurate a US$1 billion St. Regis Hotel in Cairo. On January 20, there was an official restoration of diplomatic relations. Last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Cairo for a discussion that focused on “intensifying joint consultation and coordination.” Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has also invited Sisi to visit Doha, where he hasn’t been since ascending to power in the 2013 coup. Doha’s chief diplomat has also met with his counterpart from Egypt, Sameh Shoukry, for talks on “the positive atmosphere” in Egyptian-Qatari relations this year.
Bilateral ties have seen greater cooperation in other areas beyond investment and diplomacy. On regional issues there is growing coordination between Cairo and Doha, illustrated by how the two worked together to help Israel and Hamas reach a ceasefire that ended the May 2021 Gaza-Israel war. The Egyptian government will want to see if there are still other ways for Cairo to advance its interests through dialogue and cooperation with the Qataris in other parts of the Middle East and Africa.
To many, this year’s thaw in Cairo-Doha relations has come as a surprise. “Many Egyptians were not expecting this from their government,” explained Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldun Center, Qatar University, in an interview with Inside Arabia. “Up until the last moment, they were opposing any normalization of relations with Qatar. Some of them even went on record to say that even if the Gulf blockading countries restored relations with Doha, we will not. Yet, once the al-Ula agreement was sealed, they retracted. The Egyptian government was a step ahead of its cheerleaders to quickly fix its relations with Qatar despite the fact that Doha disregarded the so-called 13 demands of the blockading countries.”
There are numerous reasons why Egypt decided to abandon the official 13 demands which Cairo and other Arab capitals imposed on Doha in mid-2017. One important factor is Joe Biden’s presidency. With a new American president in the Oval Office who was less likely to see eye-to-eye with Sisi than Trump, who referred to him as his “favorite dictator,” the Egyptian leadership has taken steps to demonstrate to the current U.S. administration that it is willing to work closely with Biden’s team and make certain adjustments to its foreign policy in the region. Moving past the rift with Qatar and opening relations with Doha fit within this context of Egypt making decisions that are welcomed by Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.
“Sisi in particular is trying to become a lot more proactive as a peacemaker in the region rather than a disruptor.”
“Sisi in particular is trying to become a lot more proactive as a peacemaker in the region rather than a disruptor,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defense Studies, in an interview with Inside Arabia. “That obviously has a lot to do with the relationship that he’s trying to build with the Biden administration. He’s trying to appeal to Washington and show that Egypt is a constructive player despite a terrible human rights record and other domestic issues.”
At the same time, the Egyptians had seen the campaign to isolate Qatar producing diminishing returns for the blockading states and failing to strongarm Doha into capitulating to their demands. Also, with an economy hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, Egypt realized its need for more Qatari investment that could come with a restoration of official relations. Therefore, with economic issues becoming increasingly salient in Egypt, officials in Cairo saw the costs of continuing its previous stance on Qatar outweighing any benefits.
“Egypt wants to attract investments from Qatar,” explained Dr. Krieg. “Qatar is happy to invest where possible. Qatar wants to become more of a supporter of a stable Egypt where it can be. Obviously, that has nothing to do with the regime. It’s more about making sure that Egypt doesn’t fail, and nobody has an interest in that.”
Egypt’s Threat Perceptions
Egypt’s regime also might be in a better position in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) at this point, which makes the threat of Qatar’s regional policies seem less serious from Cairo’s perspective. Although this MB issue remains a problematic factor in bilateral relations, both sides might successfully manage it. “The Sisi regime is quite secure in the way that the regime doesn’t feel like it’s under threat in the same way that it did in 2013 or 2014,” said Dr. Krieg. “They don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood as much of a threat to the regime at this point although they do see the MB still as a fundamental threat to regional security and stability. Hence, there is still this issue of Qatar’s relationship with political Islam in the region that Egypt still sees as fundamentally problematic.”
Cairo worries about certain groups in Libya possibly threatening Egypt along its western border. It believes that Qatar can play a positive mediating role.
Libya is relevant too. It remains unclear how political developments will unfold in Libya between now and the nationwide election planned for December. Cairo worries about certain groups in Libya possibly threatening Egypt along its western border. It believes that Qatar can play a positive mediating role resulting in an understanding between Cairo and various Islamist factions with a presence in Libya, which the Egyptian-backed general Khalifa Haftar failed to remove from power in his 2019/2020 westward military campaign.
Growing Egyptian-Qatari dialogue and cooperation can help Cairo deal with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) controversy, one of the direst regional issues facing Egyptian foreign policy decisionmakers. On top of its investments in Egypt, Qatar is a major investor in Ethiopia and Sudan, giving Doha stakes in the GERD dispute resolving peacefully. If the Qataris could play their cards to reduce friction between the involved countries, and thus lower the risks of escalation, officials in Cairo would be grateful to Doha.
In fact, this month Qatar has stepped up its efforts to help out with respect to the GERD dispute. On June 13, Shoukry came to Doha to discuss various issues, including the GERD controversy, with his Qatari counterpart. Two days later, the Arab League had a meeting in Qatar to address this matter. The foreign ministers of the Arab states called on the UN Security Council to intervene in this regional dispute. As Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani affirmed, “there is a united Arab position”. Albeit without providing details, Doha’s top diplomat added, “We spoke about the negotiations regarding the Ethiopian dam in order to reach a just settlement for all the concerned parties.”
Limits on Reconciliation
Realistically, the Egyptian-Qatari relationship will not be without difficulties. The two countries continue to see certain issues, chiefly political Islam, in very different ways. Although Al Jazeera’s reporting on Egypt in the post-al-Ula period has been far less critical of the Sisi government, the leadership in Cairo continues to see the Qatari network as problematic. The contentious issues which led to Egypt joining the campaign against Doha in mid-2017 will probably not be resolved in the foreseeable future. But what is clear is that the two Arab states are determined to manage these problems in ways that afford Egypt and Qatar opportunities to cooperate when their interests align.
Some experts like Bakeer are optimistic about Cairo and Doha being able to continue improving their relationship without letting ideological differences undermine this process. “I tend not to give the so-called ideological differences in particular cases much weight in the analysis since I see them as nothing but a pretext to spin a narrative, justify political positions, and measures, and secure foreign support,” Bakeer told Inside Arabia. “The fact that relations resumed smoothly and fast in the mentioned case confirms my point of view. This doesn’t mean that the relations between Qatar and Egypt will be free of challenges, yet as long as differences are manageable and not hindering the cooperation in different domains, differences can be contained or overcome, and things will be good for both I believe.”
Where is the UAE?
Geopolitically, one of the most important questions to ask is what the thaw in Egyptian-Qatari relations means for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and specifically the Abu Dhabi-Cairo alliance. Although the Emirati leadership may see Egypt’s renewed warmth toward Doha as an irritant, it is unlikely that Cairo and Abu Dhabi’s different perspectives on Qatar will lead to any significant problems between the Emiratis and Egyptians.
Egypt is going to approach regional issues on its own terms and with its own priorities, which might not always align with Abu Dhabi’s. This explains why Cairo is working to improve its relations with not only Qatar but also Turkey, while shifting its foreign policy in Libya in a far more diplomatic direction. However, Cairo seeking better relations with more regional powers does not mean that Egypt is on the verge of leaving the Emirati camp.
It is obvious that greater synergy still exists between Cairo and Abu Dhabi than between Cairo and Doha.
Because Egypt and Qatar remain on different pages ideologically, it is obvious that greater synergy still exists between Cairo and Abu Dhabi than between Cairo and Doha. But these ideological dynamics will not prevent Egypt from embracing a “more pragmatic approach,” as Dr. Krieg said. Last month’s situation in Gaza was a case in point because the Egyptians and Qataris cooperated enough on an operational level to bring about a ceasefire that Hamas, an Islamist group with links to the MB, agreed to.
Some experts maintain that Egyptian concerns about Cairo’s diminishing strategic value to its closest partners in the Gulf—namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia—is also driving Egypt’s desire to patch up relations with Doha. Pointing to the Abraham Accords as reason for Abu Dhabi to see Egypt as less geopolitically important to the UAE, Dr. Bakeer explained that Egypt “resuming relations with Doha will not only diversify Cairo’s relations, [and] increase its ability to economically benefit from both camps, but also will increase its value in the eyes of Doha’s opponents.” In this regard, it would be pragmatic for Egypt to try to focus on maintaining good relations with all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and benefiting as much as possible from what each of them can offer Cairo.
Positive News for Washington
As Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen put it, Biden’s electoral victory in 2020 “saw the ending of a blockade that would likely never have happened under any other president, and that Saudi officials put Mohammed bin Salman front and center of the reconciliation summit, portraying him as a regional statesman and drawing a line under the past four years.” He added that “from beginning to end, the blockade of Qatar was a textbook study of a regional crisis in the age of U.S. President Donald Trump and the weakening of the rules-based international order.”
The Biden administration has hailed the outcomes of the al-Ula summit and pointed to an easing of this intra-Arab rift as boding well for U.S. interests.
Biden’s team should see the thaw in Egypt-Qatar relations as an opportunity for greater diplomatic and economic coordination between Washington’s friends in the Arab world in the post-Trump era. As the region faces major threats such as climate change, COVID-19, and other transnational problems, there is more of a need for cooperation and less feuding over ideological differences. The Biden administration, like its predecessor, has hailed the outcomes of the al-Ula summit and pointed to an easing of this intra-Arab rift as boding well for U.S. interests.
Although the remaining differences between Egypt and Qatar do matter, it is beneficial that the two countries recognize the need to manage these sources of friction while simultaneously seeking common ground in other areas. It would be positive for the region as a whole if the current administration in Washington takes steps to encourage the Egyptians and Qataris to go even further in improving their relationship.