For over a year, Washington has been mediating between Qatar and a group of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to end an ongoing diplomatic row between them, though there has been no breakthrough.
Accusing Doha of maintaining cordial relations with Iran and supporting terrorism, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an air, sea, and land blockade on Qatar in 2017. Initially, the U.S. had sided with the Saudi-led coalition but then switched to neutrality. Kuwait opted to aid Washington with its mediation efforts while Oman adopted a neutral stance.
Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been more optimistic about solving the issue. At the opening of the third annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue held on September 14 and 15 in Washington, Pompeo said: “The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved, and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”
“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved, and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states.”
On September 12, in Doha, for the Afghanistan peace conference, the top U.S. diplomat added that it is “past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” and that ending it would facilitate greater regional cooperation between Washington and Doha.
Just days earlier, David Schenker, a top U.S. State Department diplomat for the Middle East, had also hinted that the issue could be settled soon. Predicting that progress could be made within weeks as there were signs of “flexibility” in negotiations, he termed the tiff as a “distraction from Iran.” Notably, he has indicated that mediation is now being carried out at the highest level, involving President Trump as well as Mike Pompeo.
Noticeably, this year’s strategic dialogue between Washington and Doha coincided with the Israel-UAE signing ceremony for normalization of ties, and both UAE and Qatari representatives of equal capacity were present in the U.S. capital. Reportedly, Abu Dhabi and Doha had misunderstandings that remained an impediment even after appeasing Riyadh. Mending fences with the UAE would help the opposing camp reach consensus and lift the blockade on Qatar.
Though the results of backdoor channel meetings, if any, are not known, this was an ideal opportunity to resolve the dispute. Several times in recent months, there have been signs of a gradual thaw leading to the matter being settled as hoped by Pompeo and Schenker.
The following events are indications that bilateral terms have improved between parties:
First, after the September 2019 missile attacks on Saudi Aramco oil facilities, there was some change in the air as Qatar participated in the emergency meeting held in Riyadh and supported the joint declaration for Persian Gulf security. Ostensibly, this icebreaker may have kick-started the process of diplomatic re-engagement.
Evidence of bonhomie was seen at the Gulf Cup soccer tournament in December 2019 in Qatar.
Second, evidence of bonhomie was seen at the Gulf Cup soccer tournament in December 2019 in Qatar, which was held just before the GCC council summit. Instead of boycotting the tournament, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain sent their teams to Doha and people-to-people contact again resumed between the neighboring states.
Third, at the GCC Summit in Riyadh in December, there were strong rumors beforehand that the blockade would be lifted but glitches persisted. Consequently, instead of Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, it was the Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser al-Thani, who attended the summit and received a warm welcome from King Salman.
On a positive note, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani had shared that there had been “small progress, just a little progress” in solving the dispute.
Finally, the most significant event symbolizing a rapprochement was Qatar’s inclusion in a joint statement by the GCC calling for an extension of an arms embargo on Iran in August. Reviving speculations, this development was the first definite sign of unity between the six-member group in three years.
Since 2017, several mediation efforts by Washington have proved unsuccessful, with even an April call between President Trump and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad proving fruitless. Divergences in foreign policy remain the main impediment towards ending the rift between Doha and the other GCC states.
Meanwhile, bilateral ties between Washington and Doha have only grown further. Around 10,000 American service personnel are stationed at al-Udeid, the largest U.S. air base in the region, which is just outside Doha. Regarding their military cooperation, the U.S. and Qatar have recently reaffirmed the importance of this partnership for the security and stability of the region.
In recent months, Washington and Doha have also worked closely to negotiate a settlement with Afghanistan’s Taliban. Hosting talks aimed at bringing an end to the Afghanistan conflict, Doha remained a key back channel leading to the current historic settlement between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Moreover, in the future, Doha could even play a useful role between Tehran and Washington due to its trade links with Iran.
Significantly, on September 17, Reuters reported that Timothy Lenderking, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, stated: “We’re going to move ahead, we hope, with designating Qatar a major non-NATO ally [MNNA].” With this status, Doha will acquire preferential access to U.S. military equipment and technology among other benefits; in the GCC, only Kuwait and Bahrain have MNNA status up till now.
Hindering U.S. regional objectives, the GCC spat could also have a negative impact on the energy sector.
Hindering U.S. regional objectives, the GCC spat could also have a negative impact on the energy sector and result in another scenario like last March Russia-Saudi oil price war in the days ahead.
In addition, the fact that Qatar Airways has used Iranian airspace ever since the dispute began, has irked Washington. Ending the air blockade has become a priority for the U.S. and it has made several attempts to at least start with an airspace deal. Not only does this result in overflight payments to the tune of US$133 million a year to Iran, U.S. officials traveling via Qatar Airways also feel at risk.
Completing three years of the blockade in June 2020, Qatar has reiterated its pledge to continue with negotiations and the Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater stated that: “Qatar hopes the GCC will once again be a platform of cooperation and coordination. An effective GCC is needed now more than ever, given the challenges facing our region.”
Trying to strike a balance between its foreign policy and the GCC stance, Qatar has survived and even thrived on its own, but the region will have to adopt a mainstream approach to deal with any threats ultimately. Because of the three-year hostility, the GCC lost unity and a clear stance has been missing in dealings with Iran at times.
However, it appears there is a serious move towards sorting out issues and it is hoped that the Gulf states will mark a new beginning. As Qatar moves closer to hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the recent peace overtures might bring about a united GCC by then.