The optimism which the Foreign Minister of Kuwait expressed while announcing “fruitful” progress on the road to intra-Gulf reconciliation did not come from wishful thinking. It was borne out of confidence that rapprochement between Qatar and the “Arab Quartet” countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain – could be achieved after three years of boycott and blockade. He also shed light on the parties’ willingness – which surely was not equally shared – to find common ground.
Such an accomplishment should be credited to the Kuwaiti’s firebrand diplomacy. It would be unfair and hypocritical to credit it to the “boy” in the White House – Senior Advisor to President Trump Jared Kushner, who had thus far only played along with his boss in the role of “arsonist” to the burning discord, and who is preparing for the early stages of greater crisis. Moreover, the revelations of former US Secretary of State Rick Tillerson clearly show that the first sparks of the recent crisis were launched from the White House. President Trump was one of the first Western leaders to adopt the Arab Quartet’s vision and narrative fueling the crisis with Qatar and the justifications for the blockade they imposed. One only has to refer to Trump’s past tweets to corroborate this.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to exaggerate the significance of the achievement and describe it as “historic.” The consensus so far did not include the disputed issues and the Quartet’s 13 conditions but was limited to setting a framework for upcoming negotiations. Also, the four parties do not read from the same page when speaking of Qatar, while the latter does not view the four countries besieging it in the same way either. So what does it all mean?
Of the four blockading countries, Saudi Arabia seems to be the most enthusiastic to restore relations with Qatar in service to its interests, most of which are linked to the next occupant of the White House. The Joe Biden administration is expected to not only end Riyadh’s long honeymoon with the Donald Trump administration, but also to take a new approach with the Kingdom’s main enemy: Iran, which is of marked concern for Saudi Arabia.
Fearing that Tehran might break out of the cocoon of isolation and economic sanctions, Riyadh is reassessing some of its foreign policy priorities, and such reassessment is not limited to its relationship with Qatar but includes Turkey as well. The flirtatious messages and high-level communications between the two countries are intensifying these days, amid nonstop Saudi conciliatory comments signaling that relations between Riyadh and Ankara are about to be back to normal.
While Saudi Arabia is willing to put an end to the blockade imposed on Qatar, the UAE is excluding this option and rejecting it.
While Saudi Arabia is willing to put an end to the blockade imposed on Qatar, the UAE is excluding this option and rejecting it, at least until the 13 terms of the Arab Quartet are fulfilled. The 13 conditions can be summarily described as an instrument of obedience, a renunciation of the country’s sovereignty, and a handover of the control and decision-making of the country to a “quadruple mandate administration.” The UAE will not make the job of the Kuwaiti mediator easy in the coming days and will not spare any efforts to cause the other parties to abandon the path to reconciliation and prevent them from leaving the UAE alone.
Unlike the UAE, Saudi Arabia does not consider Qatar to be a rival over its status and place in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Moreover, the reconciliation with Doha (and Turkey as a consequence) appears to be a preliminary requirement, if the Kingdom decides, willingly or unwillingly, to finalize the official and public path of normalization with Israel, with the least amount of outbidding, competition, and deafening media hype.
Abu Dhabi, for its part, considers Doha a rival and contender for its role in the region. The UAE’s enthusiasm to isolate and besiege Qatar lies in the desire of the former to remove Qatar from the field of competition in various spheres, including energy, politics, regional influence, transit, ports and aviation, finance and business, and investment.
Qatar shows special interest in restoring its relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia out of the four blockading countries. Qatar knows that its relations with the UAE will not be restored even if reconciliation is established and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) resumes its work as usual. As for relations with Egypt, Qatar has a strong hand that beats the cards of Cairo: Egyptian workers and superior media sway.
As for Bahrain, it is not very consequential in Doha’s affairs, and the relationship with it often falls under the heading of a “fait accompli.” Saudi Arabia is what matters most to Qatari officials, who stressed in their talks with the Kuwaiti mediator and US delegate, the importance and preference for a bilateral Saudi-Qatari track. Thus, for Qatar, reconciliation with Riyadh comes first, in anticipation that afterwards, the rest of the parties will agree to join.
Any separate Saudi move towards a resolution with Qatar will weaken the confidence of the Kingdom’s allies.
This Qatari proposal puts Saudi Arabia in an awkward position since the blockade was imposed by the Quartet countries, and it is logical for the reconciliation to be established with all of them as well. This is what Abu Dhabi says loud and clear, as do Cairo and Manama. Any separate Saudi move towards a resolution with Qatar will weaken the confidence of the Kingdom’s allies, which is what Riyadh seeks to avoid as much as possible. This constitutes a complexity that the Kuwaiti mediator will have to deal with, even if Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in restoring relations with Qatar individually and gradually, is noticeable.
It will be difficult for the Trump administration to establish a last-minute reconciliation between the Arab Quartet states and Qatar, even as it has realized its importance, especially after the escalation of US-Iran tensions. The US intensification of measures against Iran has created an unprecedented need for a “united Gulf front” which can help break the will of the Iranians and their resistance to the American pressures. Yet, the involved parties, including Qatar, have no interest in presenting the “gift of reconciliation” to a departing administration while waiting with great concern for the arrival of a new one, which will likely impose distinct terms.
To be sure, a major step has been achieved on the path to Gulf reconciliation, which calls for a Kuwaiti celebration and favorable Arab and international reactions. However, it is a single step on a long and thorny road, that is “booby-trapped” by conflicting interests. Moreover, it is likely that such an accomplishment will not restore the previous golden era of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as the organization is currently led from three centers of influence: Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, after having been based until recently, and for the past four decades, on one authority: Saudi Arabia.