By Fakhriya M. Suleiman, MA Global Media and Postnational Communications
The New Year marked a turning point for international relations within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The once frosty relationship between Qatar and the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is now in the process of thawing.
4 January 2021 saw Kuwaiti Foreign Minister, Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, announce that the KSA will be lifting its air, sea, and land blockade on Qatar. Sheikh al-Sabah told Kuwait TV that the two Gulf states had ‘reached [an agreement] to [re]open airspace and land and sea borders’ with one another.
The almost 4-year long KSA-Qatar rift began on 5 June 2017 when GCC members KSA, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as non-GCC member Egypt, announced the severing of diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar. Thereafter, several other countries, including the Maldives, Niger, Jordan, and Mauritania, had also either cut or downgraded ties with Qatar.
The blockading countries charged Qatar with inciting regional unrest, aiding and abbeting terrorism, and ‘getting too close to Iran.’ Qatar vehemently denies these charges.
Analysts point to the presidency of Donald Trump for having fuelled the fire of the diplomatic rift. Middle East Eye (MEE) noted that the Trump administration had pushed for tough action against Qatar due to its close relations with Iran. MEE’s Alex MacDonald went on to highlight the 2017 Riyadh Summit, where former President Trump called for the KSA to crack down on regional terrorism, giving the ‘greenlight’ for GCC hostilities against Qatar. In a series of tweets after the Summit, Trump appeared to take credit for the blockade that transpired, penning ‘leaders pointed to Qatar’ when he called for a clampdown on radical Islamist ideology and funding thereof in the region.
July 2017 saw the blockading nations issue a 13-point list of demands to end the Gulf crisis – demands which had to be complied with within ten days. Among them was the termination of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera (AJ) news network and all affiliated stations. In a tweet, Bahrain’s former Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, accused the AJ network of ‘spreading lies and rumours that cause confusion in our countries.’
In the wake of the 13 demands, Marwan Bishara, AJ’s Senior Political Analyst, commented that the approach of the blockading countries showed ‘total ignorance of international relations and a lack of understanding about what state sovereignty means.’
Qatar’s rejection of the 13 demands lead to a stalemate in the rift. In May 2018, Bahrain’s al-Khalifa told Alsharq Alawsat newspaper that he saw ‘no glimmer of hope’ of an end to the GCC crisis. However, fellow non-blockading GCC members Oman and Kuwait remained neutral in the spat and facilitated mediation geared towards Gulf reconciliation.
Despite an initial financial strain and food security scare due to reliance on imports from the KSA, Qatar proved resilient. The National Development Strategy, released in 2018 by Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani, roadmapped how the Gulf state would ‘raise its self-sufficiency.’
‘Easing the dispute with Qatar was the low-hanging fruit.’
For the Financial Times (FT), however, the recent turn of events and sudden rapprochement is attributed to the culmination of Trump’s presidency. The FT argued that now the KSA’s crown prince ‘…needs to earn credit with team Biden, which has publicly criticised the [KSA’s] human rights abuses… Easing the dispute with Qatar was the low-hanging fruit.’
January 2021 saw Qatar’s Emir arrive in the KSA’s heritage site Al-Ula to attend the 2021 GCC Summit. The regional rift symbolically culminated with MBS embracing Qatar’s Sheikh al-Thani upon his arrival. Later during the summit, the pair signed an agreement on regional ‘solidarity and stability.’ For Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, this marked ‘the turning of the page on all points of difference and a full return of diplomatic relations.’
While the remaining GCC members also signed the agreement, Emirati diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash erred on the side of caution during his January interview with CNBC International. For Ghobash, ‘things are not going to be rosy straight away.’ He went on to explain that Qatar was in fact ‘not blockaded,’ but GCC states ‘withdrew cooperation’ therewith based on the former’s problematic ‘fundamental approach to the region.’ According to Ghobash, the Emirates will now be giving Qatar ‘the benefit of the doubt and will see how it goes’ from there.
Photo caption: Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, photographed alongside Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, January 2021 (Credit: AP).