According to a Wall Street Journal report from early June, the Trump Administration has been increasingly irritated with Qatari flyover fees paid to Iran, as a result of a three year, ongoing blockade of the Gulf emirate imposed by its Arab neighbors. Donald Trump, reportedly, personally urged Saudi leadership to end the restrictions.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, confirmed that there is indeed a new initiative being taken seriously, tweeting that Qatar is open to negotiation, which he hopes will produce results.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt abruptly severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air blockade in hopes of making it comply with a long list of demands.

The four Arab countries claimed the blockade was imposed on Qatar for “supporting terrorism,” backing hardline movements, and being too close to Iran.

The four Arab countries claimed the blockade was imposed on Qatar for “supporting terrorism,” backing hardline movements, and being too close to Iran.

The blockading states, known also as the Quartet, issued a list of 13 demands, still in place, which demanded Qatar to downgrade its diplomatic ties with Iran, close a Turkish military base in Qatar, and shut down Al Jazeera Media Network.

Qatar played down all the accusations and accused the Quartet of attacking its sovereignty.

As a result of the imposed embargo, all airlines based in these countries suspended flights to and from Qatar and banned overflights by aircrafts registered in Qatar. Qatar Airways jets have been forced to take long detours through Iranian airspace.

Despite the restrictions, Qatar has been able to maintain its sovereignty, and its economy has proven resilient amid the blockade. However, the embargo has continued to have a profound impact on the country, as transportation routes have been disrupted and supply chains been altered.

Various media outlets have given much attention to American initiatives regarding the lifting of the no-fly zone for Qatar’s airplanes. Yet Professor Wojciech Grabowski, expert on the Middle East from Poland-based University of Gdansk, thinks that this issue, though not in the main focus of American foreign policy, may still receive greater attention due to upcoming November elections. President Trump could show that he can mediate between Gulf states, which could be portrayed as his success.

The US president thinks that American pressure on Saudi Arabia is determined by the Iranian factor in the first place. The US simply does not wish Qatar to pay Iran for the use of its airspace, so this ongoing intra-Arab dispute is hampering US strategy in the region, especially Trump’s maximum pressure campaign aiming to bring Iran “to its knees.”

The Trump administration is also highly concerned that many members of the US military regularly take commercial flights from Qatar, which fly over Iranian airspace, when going to and from Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US base in the region. The base is home to the headquarters of the United States Central Command (USCC) and the United States Air Force Central Command (USAFCC).

However, according to the reports, Saudi officials see the airspace issue as their strongest negotiating point, and therefore it is not something that they would give up easily. In Grabowski’s opinion, the US has nothing to offer Saudi Arabia to persuade it to lift its flight ban over its territory.

“If the no-fly zone is the strongest Saudi sanction against Qatar, its abolition may mean that Qatar will not care about other concessions from the Quartet.”

“If the no-fly zone is the strongest Saudi sanction against Qatar, its abolition may mean that Qatar will not care about other concessions from the Quartet, and the remaining restrictions will not matter much,” Grabowski told Inside Arabia, adding that the stakes for the US and Saudi Arabia regarding the Gulf crisis are different.

The Iranian factor should unite the US and Saudi Arabia because the Gulf crisis is beneficial for Tehran, but it seems that from the point of view of Saudi Arabia the dispute with Qatar is as important as that with Iran. The fact is that over the past three years of the Gulf crisis, Americans have done little to solve this crisis.

The diplomatic feud with Qatar has also completely crippled the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which deteriorated into an unfunctional and meaningless organization. But so far, repeated attempts to end the feud, which is entering its fourth year, have been unsuccessful and it is rather doubtful whether the new US initiative could soften Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Speaking to Inside Arabia, Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Senior Fellow in Middle East and Comparative Politics at University of Tübingen, said that “this renewed push by the US comes amid the pandemic that has highlighted the Persian Gulf littoral states’ interdependence and the contentious politics surrounding the severe decline in oil prices.”

Meanwhile, in a recent Middle East Institute interview, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, has signaled that Riyadh is now in charge of the Qatari file, while not raising any expectations that a political settlement would be on the horizon. In fact, “the clock in this entrenched conflict pitting Qatar against KSA and the UAE cannot be easily reversed. Although US pressure toward a settlement is absolutely significant, calculations in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also do matter, which make any predictions difficult to make,” Fathollah-Nejad added.

Qatar has raised the issue of the blockade in a series of cases before various international courts and tribunals.

Nevertheless, Qatar has raised the issue of the blockade in a series of cases before various international courts and tribunals, as Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani brought the issue of the blockade before the United Nations General Assembly. The cases against the blockading countries may pose a serious economic threat to them, as they face paying large fines for isolating Qatar.

In 2018, Qatar started the case against the UAE before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Quartet states, on the other hand, have also taken their separate action before the ICJ, defending their closure of airspace to Qatari traffic. However, despite being locked in a series of legal disputes, Qatar has hinted that it could drop the cases if the blockade is lifted.

Grabowski thinks that the verdict on the fine for the Quartet countries will not be an easy matter, as evidenced by the fact that the case has been going on for three years. “The verdict would show which side of the conflict is right, and the UN will not risk calling into question the decisions and actions that the Quartet presents as a fight against the sponsor of terrorism,” Grabowski said. He also does not think that any fine could force the Quartet to lift the flight ban, because in the Arab world the most important thing is state sovereignty and no organization has the right to decide what countries should do.

The same could be said for the infamous 13 demands issued by Quartet states. Even though most of the global media admit that these demands are exaggerated and unrealistic, simply dropping them or lifting the air ban would hardly avoid humiliation for the Quartet leadership in front of their local and international community. But with growing challenges ahead, Quartet states may soften the tough approach to these demands, according to Grabowski – and if they decide to do so, they will present it as a gesture of goodwill and a conciliation policy. “Paradoxically, abandoning these demands may be more appreciated by the [Gulf] media than strict adherence to them,” Grabowski explained.  In this way, he added, the Quartet can partially save face.

 

READ ALSO

Dialogue of the Deaf Drives Escalating US-Iranian Tensions