GP Insights

GP Insights # 455, 9 January 2021

The GCC Summit and the thaw in Qatar-Saudi Arabia relations
Lakshmi V Menon

What happened?
On 4 January, the Abu Samra border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was opened. Subsequently, on 5 January, the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed to Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia to attend the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, during which, the Al-Ula declaration or the 'solidarity and stability' deal was concluded. The deal formally ended the Qatar blockade. The Summit outcome, titled "Summit of Sultan Qaboos and Sheikh Sabah", aimed to "reinforce the Council's strengths, realize the aspirations of the citizens of the Gulf, and overcome all obstacles that hinder collaboration among Member States." 

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed hope to witness a unified effort to confront regional challenges, particularly Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Meanwhile, Egypt signed a reconciliation agreement with Qatar at the summit. 

Various states of the Arab world, including Iran, welcomed the deal. Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Qatar for its "brave resistance to pressure & extortion". "To our other Arab neighbors: Iran is neither an enemy nor threat. Enough scapegoating – especially with your reckless patron on his way out. Time to take our offer for a strong region," he tweeted. 

What is the background?
First, the blockade. On 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain imposed a historic land, air and maritime blockade on Qatar. The corner-stone of allegations was Doha's alleged support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. The coalition, or the anti-Qatar quartet, desired to strong-arm Doha into complying with their thirteen demands.

Second, Qatar's accusations. The Althanis further agitated the Saudis and Emiratis with criticism. In December 2018, Qatari Foreign Minister accused Saudi of destabilizing the region through the Yemeni war, blockading of Qatar and kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister. He condemned the UAE for destabilizing Somalia by supporting Somaliland, paying Al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen and disrupting Libya. 

Third, the US role. The declaration comes ahead of Joe Biden taking over presidentship from Donald Trump on 20 January. The Trump administration had been pushing for the resolution of the blockade to complement the Trump-Jared "deal of the century" which aims to contain and counter Iran. It is a noteworthy achievement for the Trump administration as the US pressure has made conflicting Middle Eastern powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel concordant. 

What does it mean?
First, the failure of the blockade. The quartet's demands included shutting down media outlets allegedly funded by Qatar, including Al Jazeera, expelling Iranian military representatives from Qatar, shutting down the upcoming Turkish military base and ceasing support to regional Islamist groups. Qatar rejected all accusations as baseless and expressed readiness for dialogue throughout the blockade. Today, Doha-Tehran working relationship has bolstered, and none of the objectives against Qatar has been achieved. 

Second, Qatar has emerged stronger. Saudi Arabia's game plan was to convert Qatar into a vassal state and handicap her independent foreign policy. Riyadh carried out a massive public relations effort for escalating diplomatic pressure on Doha. However, Qatar emerged more self-reliant with flourishing multi-sectoral businesses and global trade.

Third, under the late Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Kuwait had hosted numerous events for the resolution of the crisis, the deepest rift in the GCC in the last four decades. The Al-Ula declaration is a momentous step towards the conflict's resolution.

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