Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud announced at the GCC summit on January 5 in Al-Ulaa that “all differences with Qatar have been resolved” and that full diplomatic ties have been restored. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry flew to the summit to sign the agreement, before returning to Cairo where he received Qatar’s Finance Minister. The UAE, while notably muted, saw its Minister of State, Anwar Gargash, welcome reconciliation but assert that time would be needed to rebuild trust.
More surprising for many was the warm embrace between Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani upon the Emir’s arrival, as well as the exuberance of his reception, which indicated Riyadh was very much keen to turn a new page and assert that the bid for reconciliation was genuine.
However, while the reconciliation has been celebrated, it has given rise to important questions that have remained unanswered and that will have significant implications on the politics of the Gulf and beyond.
The simple reason is that Joe Biden’s victory in the US elections has completely upended Saudi Arabia’s policy considerations in the region. More specifically, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman has become increasingly concerned that where Trump defiantly turned a blind eye to international controversies such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen, Biden is believed to be far less inclined to do so. Moreover, with the Democrats winning control of Congress, there are concerns that Qatar’s relentless media coverage of Saudi Arabia will add fuel to any attempt to bring about punitive measures against the Crown Prince.
It is in this context that Riyadh has sought to shore up contentious issues that might draw antagonism from Biden. Riyadh has rushed to form a new government for Yemen, brushing aside UAE protestations, and ensured a partial return of the new government to Aden. Bin Salman is believed to have personally intervened in the case of activist Loujain Al-Hathloul who, while sentenced for a prolonged period, is expected to be released in March on the basis of time already served (something that is not afforded to the other political prisoners who lack the international support and media attention that has been given to Hathloul).
Bin Salman has deemed the blockade of Qatar as part of these contentious issues that need to be resolved before Biden takes office. Thus, he unilaterally began a push for dialogue, set aside the 13 conditions initially considered non-negotiable, and began to engage more constructively with the initiatives led by Kuwait and Jared Kushner to bring about this reconciliation.
Why Has Qatar Accepted Reconciliation?
Qatar does not see Saudi Arabia as its prime antagonist in the region and has long argued that Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman is more “badly advised” as opposed to an inherent regional rival. In 2018, former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem refused to be drawn into criticizing Riyadh in an interview with France 24, preferring instead to imply that there was another party involved, fueling tensions between the kingdom and Qatar (the reference here being the UAE).
Qatari diplomats have also focused their lobbying efforts in asserting the dangers of UAE foreign policy as opposed to Saudi foreign policy. While lamenting Riyadh, there has been a consistent message that Abu Dhabi is of a greater threat and danger to the stability of the region than the traditionally cautious kingdom that, Qatar has argued, has overreacted and misunderstood Doha.
Qatari media have often suggested that the UAE is leading Saudi Arabia to the latter’s detriment, and often asserted that while Saudi Arabia has decided to become an antagonist, this is primarily because of its alliance with Abu Dhabi rather than an inherent aversion to Doha.
This is why during the rumors of reconciliation talks, prominent Qatari analysts often remarked that Doha was seeking reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, as opposed to all four blockading countries.
Qatar is well aware that the Saudi-UAE alliance is built primarily on common fears rather than common goals.
Qatar is also well aware that the Saudi-UAE alliance is built primarily on common fears rather than common goals. Saudi Arabia’s scramble to contain the Arab Spring at a time in which a domestic succession struggle was beginning to gather pace naturally meant the UAE became a valuable ally. Saudi Arabia’s scramble to contain Iran in Yemen also naturally meant the UAE became a valuable ally through its lobbying efforts and involvement in the Arab coalition. Concerns that Qatar was the prime beneficiary of the Arab Spring through its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, who stormed to power through democratic elections, fueled perceptions in Riyadh that Doha was becoming an imminent threat, and that there needed to be a concerted regional effort to contain it.
However, while Saudi Arabia has sought to contain Iran, Abu Dhabi has sought closer ties. Where Saudi Arabia has sought a united Yemen, the UAE has sought to split the country between North and South. Where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have worked together on the same foreign policy issues, Riyadh has by far suffered more in terms of PR than its more pro-active and destructive ally.
Qatar believes that the prime antagonist is the UAE which thrives on taking advantage of Riyadh’s fears. Given that Bin Salman has unilaterally sought reconciliation against the wishes of the UAE, the view in Doha is that this represents an opportunity to lessen Bin Salman’s dependency on Abu Dhabi, thereby weakening the UAE’s ability to exert itself to Qatar’s detriment. Even if Bin Salman’s reconciliation is rooted in fear, it nevertheless represents a lack of confidence in his alliance with the UAE and a willingness on the part of the Crown Prince to defy Abu Dhabi irrespective of its assertions that it is committed to protecting and enhancing his interests.
The UAE’s Stance
Abu Dhabi has been the most defiant and obstinate throughout the reconciliation process. On November 16, 2020, UAE Ambassador to the US Yusuf Al-Otaiba defiantly stated that “reconciliation was not on anyone’s priority list.” The UAE appeared to then be caught off-guard by Riyadh’s renewed engagement with the reconciliation process, leading prominent UAE commentator and former government adviser AbdulKhaleq Abdullah to state that “there is no reconciliation without the UAE’s consent,” drawing the ire of Saudis who rebuked his tone. The tweet was later deleted and replaced with one warning that while reconciliation would be welcomed, Qatar was not a sincere party. Rumors then emerged of a suspected visit by the UAE Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed to Riyadh which was denounced by Qatari analysts as a bid to scupper reconciliation talks.
As talks gained traction, news emerged that Mohamed Bin Zayed would not be attending the GCC summit and that Dubai ruler Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum would lead the Emirati delegation. This was seen as a sign that reconciliation was likely, and that Emir Tamim would be present.
The UAE believes that Qatar remains the prime sponsor of Political Islam via the Muslim Brotherhood whom Abu Dhabi has actively sought to defeat in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, and elsewhere. The UAE also believes that Bin Salman’s fears of Biden are exaggerated, and that the kingdom is well equipped to resist any antagonism, especially following the UAE’s normalization with Israel and Bin Salman’s role in facilitating it by opening up Saudi airspace for Israeli delegations and, more recently, Israeli commercial flights.
There is a sense that Abu Dhabi is seething at the manner in which it has been forced into a reconciliation it saw no need for, that it did not want, and that it took steps to resist. This is compounded by an increasing concern among UAE policymakers over the reassertion of power by its larger allies on issues that Abu Dhabi views are of vital importance. Egypt for example has diverged in Libya where it has resisted the UAE’s preference for war in favor of supporting the political process to establish stability and security on its border.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, one of the most senior diplomats, has made a statement since the reconciliation welcoming the restoration of ties but caveating any optimism by highlighting the “need for time to rebuild trust.” The UAE has announced that transport and trade will recommence between the two states “within days.” Yet while the UAE is officially a party to the reconciliation, it does not believe in it. The problem however is that Abu Dhabi’s options are limited given its larger allies have embraced it openly. Considering its alliances are an integral part of its foreign policy, it is unlikely the UAE will seek to thwart the reconciliation so long as Riyadh remains in favor of it.
The real fear among UAE policymakers is to what extent Bin Salman will push reconciliation. More specifically, there will be concerns that it may well expand to include Turkey, which is already engaged with Cairo over Libya, and has launched public overtures to both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While Abu Dhabi might reluctantly accept reconciliation with Doha, any serious rapprochement between Ankara and its allies would be considered disastrous.
Has Saudi Arabia ‘Lost’ and Qatar ‘Won’?
Although it is true that Riyadh has failed to squeeze Doha into submission and that the latter has not conceded any of the initial 13 demands made by the blockading countries, Qatar is not seeking to squeeze or punish Saudi Arabia. Moreover, while Doha has not conceded, it has unofficially offered up one of the most important conditions that Bin Salman sought which is toning down the fierce media coverage on the part of Qatar’s media outlets that wreaked havoc on Riyadh’s attempts to revamp its image to the international community.
Al Jazeera has already begun broadcasting positive coverage, including a picture of the Saudi capital Riyadh under a caption celebrating its development as a modern city. Qatari commentators have notably ceased to deride Bin Salman, celebrating his exuberant welcome of Emir Tamim.
While it remains to be seen how long this will last, it nevertheless reflects an intention on the part of Doha not to press Riyadh and welcome the reconciliation. Furthermore, it represents an aim to affirm the reconciliation at least in so far as it relates to Saudi Arabia, and possibly Egypt.
Trump’s Push for Reconciliation and the Role of US Mediation
During his tenure, Trump has moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, defunded and bullied the Palestinians, described Egypt’s Sisi as his “favorite dictator,” blackmailed Sudan, and humiliated Saudi Arabia by asserting that “they could not survive two weeks without the US.” It is abundantly clear that Trump has little regard for his Gulf allies and their interests. Therefore, the concerted effort on the part of the Trump administration in recent times to resolve a blockade it had no interest in over the past three years deserves consideration.
There are a number of possible reasons. The first, and the most touted, has to do with targeting Iran. There have been suggestions that Washington is keen to resolve the internal disputes between the Gulf states to ensure a united front against a possible war in Iran. This is unlikely primarily because Trump has always been averse to war and taken every opportunity to decrease US military presence in the region. Moreover, if he or a family member have intentions to run for election after Biden’s tenure ends, it is hard to imagine he would offend his electorate who have lauded his public aversion to US involvement in conflicts abroad.
Trump has numerous business interests with the royal families of the Gulf. His push for reconciliation may well be a peace offering to the Qatari royal family.
The second possible reason has to do with Trump’s personal ambitions. Trump has numerous business interests with the royal families of the Gulf. His push for reconciliation may well be a peace offering to the Qatari royal family as he eyes more business ventures.
The third reason has to do with Trump’s own perception of his future in politics. There is a real possibility that he, or a family member, will have eyes on running for election after Biden’s first term. In other words, Trump has pushed for this reconciliation as part of a long-term foreign policy strategy based on the expectation that he will soon be back in the White House to continue his aim of pressuring Iran.
While this may initially appear bewildering, the reality is that Qatar’s engagement with Kushner’s efforts has been unusual since he will be leaving the White House soon and that Biden is likely to squeeze Riyadh in Qatar’s favor. The suggestion therefore is that Doha does not want to take chances over the possibility that Trump could return after Biden and wreak vengeance on Qatar, particularly given the popular perception in the region that one of the driving factors behind Trump’s support for the blockade was Doha’s initial reluctance to invest in Trump businesses. Doha’s decision to offer up reconciliation to Trump instead of Biden may well reflect a consideration among Qatari policymakers for the future.
The reality is that the reconciliation poses more questions than answers. Qatar did not concede any of the 13 conditions. But it is clear both Riyadh and Doha want to improve ties. Does this mean Al Jazeera will cease to cover issues that annoy Saudi Arabia such as the Saad al-Jabri’s accusations, Salman al-Oudah’s imprisonment, and the Khashoggi murder? Will the channel no longer host one-on-one interviews with prominent Saudi opposition figures over the next few months?
Egypt’s primary gripe with Qatar has been its media coverage. Now that Egypt has signed the reconciliation agreement, and Egyptian media has completely changed its tune towards Qatar, does this mean Qatar’s media outlets will stop covering outbreaks of protest in Egypt? In the past, these demonstrations have only been brought to our attention because of the coverage of Doha’s numerous media outlets (both English and Arabic).
The UAE may have been forced to swallow reconciliation with Qatar by its larger ally. But will it tolerate a possible expansion of this reconciliation to include Turkey given Egypt is already engaging with Ankara on Libya, and King Salman has already spoken to President Erdogan?
And if Trump has pushed the reconciliation with a view to force a war with Iran, does that mean he has no intention of leaving the White House and is making plans on the basis that he will have a second term, or perhaps return in 2024-5?
All these questions have significant implications not only on the relationship between the Gulf states, but on the trajectories of countries including Libya, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia.
All these questions have significant implications not only on the relationship between the Gulf states, but on the trajectories of countries including Libya, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Somalia where Gulf differences have exacerbated polarization, proxy warfare, and political transitions.
Nevertheless, reconciliation between the Gulf states is something to be celebrated and welcomed. Irrespective of the dynamics, it is important to assert the noted Quranic maxim that is heralded in the Middle East: الصلح خير (Reconciliation [between brothers] is better). Families that were split up can now be reunited. Pressure on food supply chains will be eased. More importantly, differences can now be discussed directly as opposed to through Kuwaiti, Omani, or American mediators. While more can be achieved, reconciliation suggests a small step in the right direction in that it lifts the impact of the political feud off the backs of the ordinary people it impacted.