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(Qatar) Qatar Crisis: A Beginning to the End? (Sanam Vakil, Chatham House)

5 January 2021 marked the formal beginning of the end of the three-and-a-half-year Qatar crisis. GCC leaders, including the Qatari Emir Tamim and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gathered for the 41st GCC Summit in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia where they signed the ‘security and stability’ agreement.

They publicly acknowledged it was time to ‘fold the page of the past’ officially moving beyond the acrimony and tensions that had pervaded GCC politics since 2017. As part of the agreement, the Quartet states that led the blockade (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain) agreed to open air, land and sea routes to Qatar.

In exchange, Doha would rescind Qatari lawsuits against the four countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Collectively, they agreed to desist from negative media coverage and work towards mending a rift that has caused immense reputational, social, financial and political damage for the GCC.

While the GCC has continued to function at a lower level, the rift exposed existent divergences and competitive dynamics within the bloc. Without acknowledgement or meaningful repair, these issues could easily resurface yet again.

Underlying causes of the blockade

While the show of unity and photo opps are a welcome relief amid regional tensions with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen underway since 2015, the continuing impact of COVID-19, and the pending Joe Biden inauguration, these concessions do not address the underlying causes of the blockade nor acknowledge the 13 demands issued upon Qatar.

The list included charges of support for regional Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood considered a threat to the UAE, close association with Turkey that has a military base in Qatar and shares sympathy for regional political Islamist groups, and the maintenance of diplomatic ties with the Iran, long considered a threat to GCC stability. Ultimately, the demands sought Qatari conformity and submission to pressure from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Through the crisis, though, Doha neither buckled nor bent. Thanks to its plentiful financial resources, Doha leant more heavily on Ankara for political, logistical and military support, redirected its supply chains, developed an indigenous food sector and turned to Tehran for access to airspace. Emir Tamim enjoyed a groundswell of national support, solidifying a stronger sense of Qatari identity.

Yet, amid World Cup 2022 planning, the blockade proved costly and brought to the surface underlying GCC tensions.

The crisis had its roots in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that brought protests to Bahrain and saw long time Arab autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fall, causing deep concern of a Gulf domino effect. Qatar’s early support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera’s favourable media coverage heightened tensions.

When the Quartet withdrew their ambassadors and cut ties to Doha, 2014 became a prelude to 2017. Then, the crisis was theoretically resolved through the collective acceptance of non-interference signed in the Riyadh agreement. In practice, though, tensions continued to simmer throughout the bloc, giving way again in the 2017 blockade.

Through both experiences, Kuwait dutifully led mediation efforts finally bringing the Trump administration on board to shepherd the final hurdles and manage sequencing. Up until the last minute, it was not clear if the summit would yield meaningful results or broaden from a bilateral Saudi-Qatari rapprochement to include the entire Quartet. Qatar’s insistence that the blockade be lifted before committing to Tamim’s trip was an important conciliatory step.

A move towards reconciliation

Saudi Arabia had begun to signal as early as 2019 that reconciliation with Doha was on its agenda. In fact, it led the way, slowly bringing the UAE, and Bahrain and Egypt aboard. Seeking to mend fences and improve its bungled international image after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, resolution of the crisis is also seen as a pathway to address the stalemate in Yemen and the lack of GCC unity vis-à-vis Iran.

Despite UN-led mediation efforts, the Yemen war has continued to drag on with allegations abound that Doha has been providing financial support for the Houthis. Through the duration of President Trump’s sanctions-based maximum pressure campaign against Iran, Qatar’s payment of $100 million for use of Iranian airspace was also seen as a lifeline for the financially strapped Islamic Republic.

MBS highlighted the issue of Iran and the security focus of the agreement in this week’s speech, stating there are still ‘threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic programme and its plans for sabotage and destruction.’

The coming inauguration of the Biden administration that is planning to pursue a more balanced regional approach is also believed to be a motivator behind the reconciliation. Aware of Biden’s intentions to return to the Iran nuclear deal, GCC unity is seen as necessary to start off on strong footing with Washington.

A cautionary tale

The experiences of 2014 and 2017 should provide the GCC with a cautionary tale, though. The crisis has brought to light tensions, competition and cleavages within the bloc. For the time being, it appears that the 13 demands have been cast to the wayside.

While not yet announced, the issues are expected to be discussed in bilateral meetings between Doha and each Quartet country. It is hard to see how this conflict resolution pathway will lead to shifts in Doha’s ties to Tehran or Ankara or see any repositioning of support away from political Islamist groups.

Through the blockade, Kuwait and Oman have been increasingly anxious over the Quartet’s activism. Economic visions and diversification plans have increased GCC competition. Despite motivating GCC unity, each state has maintained its own individual Iran strategy rendering a common one as elusive.

Ideological divisions over the role and relevance of the Muslim Brotherhood also remain while the Abraham Accords add an additional complicating layer over the edifice of unity. Papering over these internal GCC dynamics clearly risks another repeat. Concerted diplomacy and confidence building measures will be needed to heal the gap that has divided families and tribal ties and to build a more sustainable foundation for GCC cooperation.