Not just the Trump Administration, the Saudis too seem enthusiastic about a possible deal to end the Middle-Eastern blockade of Qatar, with a view to claiming credit for it, to appease the incoming Biden administration.
On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Egypt severed ties with Qatar. The provocation for this step, these countries argued, was Qatar’s alleged support to terrorism in the Middle East and the fact that it interfered in the internal affairs of these countries (Jordan also scaled down its ties with Qatar). The main bone of contention between Qatar and other Arab states in recent years has been Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, Qatar’s cordial ties with Iran, have also riled the alliance, specifically Saudi Arabia. Yet another source of dispute is the Al Jazeera network, founded by Qatar’s emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani in 1996. The Saudi led alliance alleges that Al Jazeera’s coverage is skewed and it supported Islamist groups.
A steady build-up of these tensions have translated into an air, sea and land blockade of Qatar, imposed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. Barring Egypt, these countries have also asked their respective citizens residing in Qatar to leave. Some other countries, such as Yemen, Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government asked their citizens in Qatar to return as well.
As a result of the blockade, Qatar has been has been paying 100 Million USD a year to use alternate routes over Iranian airspace.
However, in spite of the economic hardships, Qatar has dealt with the crisis reasonably well. In fact, a crucial strategic implication of the blockade has been that Qatar has moved closer to Iran and Turkey. For instance, in September 2020, Iran and Qatar discussed the potential of electricity trade between the two countries with the possibility of joining their power grids through sea.
Is it Time for a Negotiated Thaw?
In July 2017, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt had given a list of 13 demands to Qatar as a condition to end the blockade. This included snapping of ties with Iran, shutting down Al Jazeera channel and putting an end to the practice of providing citizenship to those who had been exiled by other countries in the region, due to political opposition. Qatar however, rejected these conditions. In November 2020, in a UN report, an expert called for immediate ‘lifting’ of sanctions against Qatar, arguing that the punitive measures imposed by Saudi Arabia and four other countries was a clear violation of international human rights.
The Implications of US-Qatar Ties
It is important to remember that Qatar is strategically important for the US, as it is home to a US military base. In fact, back channel talks between the Taliban and the US in recent years have been held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and a final agreement between the two was signed in February 2020. The US in turn, has been trying to broker a deal between Qatar and the Saudi bloc, but to no avail. The main issue remains the list of 13 demands, which were presented to Qatar, but to which it did not agree.
During his visit to the Middle East in December 2020, Donald Trump’s son in law and envoy for the Middle East, Jared Kushner met with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Than. The main agenda was to resolve the dispute over Qatari planes flying through the airspace of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Watch: Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the Road to Reconciliation after a three year conflict
The Trump Administration, which has played a role in the Abraham Accords (agreements between UAE, Bahrain and Sudan to normalize ties with Israel), would not want to miss the opportunity of taking credit for reducing tensions between Qatar and the GCC countries as well. In November 2020, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien while commenting on the possibility of Qatari flights being able to pass through Bahrain and Saudi Arabia had said: ‘I would like to see that get done before – if we end up leaving office – I’d like to see that get done in the next 70 days. And I think there’s a possibility for it.”
Days after Kushner’s meeting, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, while speaking to the annual Mediterranean Dialogue, stated that significant progress had been made: “… I can say that I am somewhat optimistic that we are close to finalizing an agreement between all the nations in the dispute to come to a resolution that we think will be satisfactory to all.” The Saudi Foreign Minister also thanked Kuwait and the US for the role their involvement in reducing tensions between Qatar and other Arab nations.
Watch: Saudi Foreign Minister says Final Agreement in Qatar dispute in ‘reach’
Kuwait, which has played an important role behind the scenes as a mediator, also confirmed that important discussions had taken place. Kuwaiti foreign minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Sabah said that in these discussions, all sides expressed their desire to move ahead. His statement was welcomed by the Qatari Foreign Minister as well.
Assessing Real Possibilities of an Agreement
While there is no doubt, that recent developments indicate that a thaw with Qatar is very much on the cards, Qatar seems both defiant and wary of being coerced by its neighbours. While speaking at the Roma Med Conference Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, while agreeing that stability was essential in the Gulf and disputes needed to be resolved, made it quite clear that Qatar would not give up on it’s independent foreign policy.
“No country is in a position to impose any demands on another country, whether from Qatar or from the quartet … Each country should decide its foreign policy.”Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani
Moreover, the Qatari Assistant Foreign Minister, Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater, warned that it was important not to raise expectations even though some important steps had been taken towards resolving issues.
While Qatar can flex its muscles up to a point, because it is protected by the close strategic ties it shares with the US, a less fractious GCC is certainly good news for the US. Besides the US, it is also in Saudi Arabia’s interest to resolve the dispute because it would also want to send a positive message to the incoming Biden administration, given that Joe Biden has been critical of the Saudis on human rights issues. The Saudi royal family can hope that Biden will soften his views vis-à-vis the Saudis if an agreement were to be reached with Qatar.
Furthermore, for purely economic reasons, Qatar ought to welcome the removal of the blockade, paving the way for more robust ties with other Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. Thus would also be particularly important given that Qatar is hosting the FIFA Championship in 2022.
A Window of Opportunity
In conclusion, the removal of the blockade on Qatar and a formal agreement would be important for a number of reasons. First, it will change the equations within the Gulf, and given the strategic importance of the region, the US would not like instability and infighting among the GCC nations. Second, not just the Trump Administration, but the Saudis would like to claim credit for their role in a possible deal, which removes the blockade, to project it as their achievement to the incoming Biden administration.
But, it is essential to highlight that the Qataris have made it clear that they will not compromise on their independent foreign policy, so those pushing for an agreement will not be able to steam roll their way through.