Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain on November 13 reversed their earlier decision to boycott the 24th round of the Arabian Gulf Tournament to be held from November 26 to December 8* in Qatar. The reversal means that their national teams will be going to Doha for the first time since the blockading countries banned their citizens from visiting Qatar or even showing sympathy for it, thus signaling a possible ease in the Gulf crisis that has been ongoing since the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led bloc against Qatar in June 2017.
Although this gesture seems to have come out of the blue, two important developments occurred behind closed doors recently that set the stage. In an official meeting last month in the presence of GCC senior officials, a representative of Saudi Arabia appeared to be appeasing his Qatari counterpart by kindly asking him several times his personal opinion on the discussed matters. After the meeting, and while representatives of the Gulf countries were leaving the hall, the Saudi official asked the Qatari to give his regards to the Emir of Qatar.
Commenting on the incident, a Gulf source aware of the matter told me that, “The Saudi official was trying to convey a message. Such a gesture couldn’t have spontaneously come out from him. He must have had royal directives.”
That was not the only Saudi gesture in October. On October 3, at the request of the Armed Forces of Saudi Arabia, the GCC Supreme Military Committee of the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces held its fourth Extraordinary Meeting. Although it was not the first time Qatar had attended the meeting, this time the tone of the Saudi’s invitation letter to Qatar was extremely warm and quite unprecedented.
Motives Behind the Saudi Move
Starting in May, a series of dangerous events characterized by unusual military escalation took place in the Gulf where Iran was accused of targeting oil tankers in UAE territorial waters and in the Gulf of Oman. Two particular events, however, are believed to have played a major role in forcing Saudi Arabia to reevaluate its position.
First was the shooting down of a $130 million American UAV (RQ-4 Global Hawk) over the Gulf by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) last June. The second was the targeting of Aramco’s critical oil facilities with cruise missiles and drones in September.
At the time of these dangerous provocations, expectations were high that the US administration would respond with an attack on Iran to restore its lost deterrence in the Gulf. However, Trump chose not to do that and followed his decision by firing his hawkish advisor John Bolton and asking for a meeting with Rouhani.
This move indicated that unless an American soldier had been downed, Trump was not ready either to deter Iran or to respond to it militarily. The absence of a meaningful US response prompted Saudi Arabia to look for alternatives to neutralize the threats coming from Iran and accommodate the new realities on the ground, including an unreliable US ally, while awaiting the coming US Presidential elections.
With threats to its security increasing, Saudi Arabia was now in need of the collective power of the GCC more than at any time before.
Moreover, while Iran was escalating its efforts directed against Riyadh in the Gulf and Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s northern borders were completely vulnerable due to the fact that most of the military power is concentrated in the south to fight against the Yemeni Houthi rebels. Saudi military officials were afraid that Iran might utilize such vulnerability to launch attacks against strategic facilities in the north or urge the pro-Iran Iraqi militia to attack Saudi Arabia from the north, especially after the attacks against Aramco. With such threats to its security increasing, Saudi Arabia was now in need of the collective power of the GCC more than at any time before.
UAE’s Resistance Against Reconciliation
Last July, following a unilateral initiative by Abu Dhabi towards Tehran, a dispute over regional priorities, agendas, and end goals started to emerge between Saudi Arabia and UAE especially in issues related to Iran, Yemen, and Qatar. Recently, Abu Dhabi sent political and security delegations to Iran both in public and secret, announced that it will coordinate with Iran in the Gulf security, pulled out some of its troops from Yemen, and last but not least reportedly released $700 million of Iran’s frozen assets while pledging to increase bilateral trade with Tehran to between $20 and $25 billion dollars. Although Abu Dhabi was re-adjusting its relations with Iran, the Emirate continued to attack its Arab Gulf neighbor Qatar and didn’t take any positive initiative towards it.
When the Saudi-led bloc sieged Qatar, the Iranian factor and the so-called strong relations between Doha and Tehran were one excuse to justify taking anti-Qatar measures. In fact, the first item on their 13 demands list was about Iran. However, the fact that UAE shifted its policy 180 degrees recently towards Iran meant that Saudi Arabia has no need to prolong the crisis with Qatar.
While it was noticeable that the Saudi senior officials backtracked on sharp statements made against Qatar in the last few months, the UAE’s state minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash continued to attack Doha and incite anti-Qatar sentiment. This is consistent with indications that the UAE was resisting efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis. One good reason to explain the Emirati attitude her is Abu Dhabi’s fear that resolving the crisis and improving Saudi-Qatar relations might backfire on it.
The Way Forward
Soccer diplomacy provides the Saudi-led bloc an opportunity to thaw relations with Qatar.
Soccer diplomacy provides the Saudi-led bloc with the necessary ladder to climb down the tree it had climbed during the last two years and an opportunity to thaw relations with Qatar. Yet, this is just the beginning. Further steps are still needed if they really intend to go down this road.
Last week, Qatar’s Foreign Minister met his US counterpart, Mike Pompeo, and stated that Doha is ready for unconditional dialogue based on mutual respect for each state’s sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.
From Qatar’s perspective, any decisions that fall short of removing the imposed blockade and undoing the hostile measures that were taken against the small Gulf Emirate at the beginning of the crisis show no serious will to resolve the problem. However, if things were to accelerate in the right direction, the Qataris would probably like to see Kuwait and its Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah given the rightful credit of easing and resolving the matter. Such a development might require the GCC countries to move the GCC summit supposed to take place in UAE this year to Kuwait. Yet, others might suggest the USA as a place to announce resolving the Gulf crisis.
If the reconciliation scenario prevails in the coming period, however, two main challenges arise.
First, a unified policy against Iran is needed. This is significant because the GCC countries have never had unified policies towards Iran. Yet, the US administration is trying to achieve this goal while pressuring both camps to resolve the crisis. Pompeo has repeatedly stressed the fact that whenever the Gulf countries are working together, they are more powerful, and that disputes between countries with shared objectives are never helpful especially while facing a common challenge such as Iran.
Ironically, the latest serious Iranian escalation in the Gulf proves that there is the potential to unify the Gulf countries.
Ironically, the latest serious Iranian escalation in the Gulf proves that there is the potential to unify the Gulf countries. Tehran did threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz several times and also to target US bases in the Gulf. This means that even Gulf countries that enjoy relatively good relations with Iran will not survive the implications of such a scenario. The US effort in setting the agenda and utilizing the collective capabilities of the GCC countries in countering Iran will be crucial in the coming period.
The second challenge is the lack of trust between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and UAE on the other. No matter how sincere the reconciliation efforts are, it will be hard for Qatar to trust the blockading countries in the future. While the Qataris might be willing to engage positively with the Saudis, this may not be the case when it comes to the UAE.
Many Qataris believe that Abu Dhabi—not Saudi Arabia—was the mastermind behind the Gulf crisis, and that it used Riyadh as a shield so as not to take the blame for what would happen next. For Qatar, in light of the geographical realities on the ground, Saudi Arabia is much more important and critical than the UAE.
* Editor’s note: The start date of the tournament has been variously reported as November 27, November 24, and now November 26, according to various websites.