Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on Human Rights in the past and even dubbed the Kingdom a ‘pariah state’ on one occasion.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt had imposed a trade, travel and diplomatic embargo on Qatar in June 2017. Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, and its close ties with Iran were cited as the main reasons for the blockade. Saudi Arabia and others closed their sea routes, land borders and airspace to Qatari vehicles. As a consequence of the blockade, Qatar had to use Iranian air space. Only two GCC states Oman and Kuwait had not snapped diplomatic ties with Qatar.
On January, 5 2021 at the Annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, at Al-Ula, a solidarity and stability agreement was signed, through which Saudi Arabia, along with its allies, and Qatar restored diplomatic ties. Riyadh re-opened its airspace and land and sea borders with Qatar on January 4, 2021 and other countries will be following suit.
Why earlier attempts to broker a peace deal failed
Attempts had been made by the US to broker a deal between both sides in 2017. The Riyadh-led bloc had imposed the freeze and presented 13 conditions to Qatar including shutting down of the Al Jazeera Channel and other Qatar funded news outlets, downgrading ties with Iran and Turkey and refraining from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.
Qatar categorically refused these conditions and stated, that it would not in anyway compromise its sovereignty. Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani had said, ‘We are willing to negotiate any legitimate grievances with our neighbors, but we will not compromise our sovereignty’. Al Thani had also dubbed the blockade imposed on Qatar as a violation of International law. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that in spite of the blockade Qatar’s economy has fared reasonably well – In 2021, it is expected to grow at 2.5%, the second highest rate amongst GCC countries.
The Agreement and the Role of US, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
The agreement was dubbed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as a reiteration of ‘Gulf, Arab, Islamic solidarity and stability’. The Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, while commenting on the agreement signed to end the blockade of Qatar had stated, “What happened today is… the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations.”
Watch: Saudi FM on the restoration of ties with Qatar
Senior Advisor to the White House and President Donald Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner, along with the US Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and special State Department adviser Brian Hook, witnessed the signing of the agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh, and its allies and Qatar. During his visit to the Middle East in December 2020, Kushner is supposed to have pushed for the removal of the blockade on Qatar in his meetings with Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Kuwait too has been an important player in trying to reduce tensions between Qatar and the other Arab states. In December 2020, the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Al Sabah had hinted at progress in this direction, though Qatar had stated that it would only accept any agreement which was fair.
The Saudi Factor
There are two important factors behind this agreement. First, that the Saudi’s want to send a positive message to the incoming Biden Administration. Joe Biden has been critical of the Saudi Arabia’s poor track record on Human Rights, and dubbed it as a ‘pariah state’ also saying that a Biden administration will re-assess ties with Riyadh, and has accused Trump of being soft vis-à-vis the Saudis. On the other hand, the Trump Administration, especially Kushner, is taking credit for the removal of the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar with one senior official dubbing it as a massive breakthrough that “will allow for travel among the countries as well as goods. It will lead to more stability in the region.”
After the Abraham Accords signed in September 2020, through which relations were normalized between Bahrain, UAE and Israel, the Trump Administration would like to dub this agreement as another major success in term of its Middle East Policy. Riyadh too is likely to take credit for its role in reducing tensions with Qatar which is home to the US’ largest American military facility in the Middle East – the Al Udeid Air Base.
The Iran Factor
The second important part is the Iran factor. Saudi Arabia is wary of Biden Administration’s possible outreach to Iran, and it has sought to isolate Iran through this step. As a result of the embargo, Qatar had moved much closer to both Turkey and Iran. Iranian air space was being used since the blockade of 2017 which had led to an increase in Iranian air traffic by 17%. After signing the agreement, Qatar has made it clear that it’s relations vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey are unlikely to be affected and that it would follow an independent foreign policy.
A number of economic and geo-political factors have resulted in the removal of the embargo on Qatar. While it is likely to reduce tensions, there are some major divergences between Qatar and other Arab countries on crucial foreign policy issues, especially with respect to Iran. Qatar is unlikely to accept any conditionality, and is unlikely to re-orient its foreign policy significantly. It would also be interesting to see how the incoming Biden Administration views the role of Saudi Arabia in this agreement and removal of the Qatar blockade.