Today
Sat 23 January 2021

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey explains how Joe Biden’s election victory has already provided an impetus for peace among Gulf states

An apparently uplifting scene occurred as the ruler of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, stepped off a plane and was greeted with a hug from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), after a lengthy period without diplomatic ties. This embrace signalled hopes that the two countries could reform a bitter relationship that has left fractures across the entire Arab world. 

This historic hug came at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the north-western Saudi region of Al-Ula on 5 January, where the two Gulf leaders signed an agreement to end the three-and-a-half-year-long blockade against Qatar.  

This followed negotiations from Donald Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner in December after visiting the two countries’ capitals, Riyadh and Doha, as Trump sought a final foreign policy ‘victory’ before leaving office – as well as positive mediation efforts from Kuwait, a neutral Gulf country in the crisis. 

Alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain also agreed to restore ties with Qatar, after initially joining Riyadh’s efforts in the blockade.

Buried beneath these televised gestures, however, are deep scars, separated families, lost jobs, diminished trust. It will be difficult for relations to fully reset.


A Fractured Region

It began on 24 May 2017, after a fake story appeared on Qatar’s state news agency, with fabricated remarks in which the Emir supposedly praised the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. The Washington Post, citing US intelligence officials, confirmed that the UAE hacked and orchestrated the planted report.

It erupted further on 5 June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, imposing an ongoing sea, land and air blockade on the country.

The self-styled ‘Anti-Terror Quarter’ issued Qatar with a 13-point ultimatum to carry out within 10 days, including shutting state-aligned media outlets such as Al Jazeera, ending ties with Iran, downscaling military cooperation with Turkey, and severing alleged ties to “terrorist groups”.  

Though Saudi Arabia and the UAE were concerned over Qatar’s apparent ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – which the UAE vehemently opposes – fake news was also a key factor in the crisis. 

The shockwaves from burgeoning hostilities rippled across the region, as several countries were forced to pick sides or risk facing the wrath of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. As Turkey stepped in to shore up Qatar, both rival axes supported opposite political sides in Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, Somalia, Syria and beyond.


International Impunity

The GCC states are all close US allies, and one can reasonably wonder how countries with supposedly mutual aims reached such a boiling point.

Washington not only has strong military and commercial ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also has a significant military base in Doha. 

Though Trump apparently attempted to resolve the rift, his rhetoric was instrumental in stoking the crisis. A day after the blockade on Qatar began, Trump tweeted: “during my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

This clearly justified the blockade.

Trump also warmed to and supported MbS’ ascension to power as the Kingdom took a more assertive foreign policy stance.

In contrast, Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, actively prevented tensions from erupting – not least during the ‘mini’ Gulf crisis in 2014 which, quickly resolved, gave little incentive for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to carry out aggressive moves.

What’s more, while Trump actively fuelled the crisis, his erratic actions didn’t provide any hope of sanity being restored – epitomised by the sacking of former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. 

Rather than simply forcing Qatar into submission, Saudi Arabia and the UAE reportedly wanted to invade the country and topple its ruling family at the onset of the crisis. According to documents obtained by The Intercept, Tillerson intervened and thwarted this move, prompting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to lobby for his removal.

The influence of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince – the powerful Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) – was instrumental in the crisis. Bloomberg News reviewed various emails, documents and legal filings that detailed how MbZ in 2017 plotted to collaborate with private banking firm Banque Havilland to launch an attack on Qatar’s financial markets and deplete its foreign-exchange reserves.

A lack of impunity on the part of those involved allowed the crisis to erupt and worsen. 


Diplomacy Over Populism

One narrative is that Qatar has achieved “victory”. This may bear some truth, in that Qatar was not only able to weather the storm, establish new trade ties and supply chains, it also never conceded to any of the demands of Saudi Arabia and its allies.

However, even though it was clear that Qatar would not succumb to the blockade, the antagonistic countries still refused to normalise relations.

Indeed, it was only really Joe Biden’s presidential victory that sent the Saudi regime scrambling for new diplomatic ties with Qatar, fearing inevitable incoming pressure from Washington. Biden delivered scathing criticisms of MbS during his presidential campaign, threatening to “reassess” relations with Riyadh over the Crown Prince’s bellicose foreign policy, particularly the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the war on Yemen.

While tensions may likely continue to fester, particularly a war of narratives between Qatar and the UAE, this resolution shows how proactive and sensible global leadership – rather than the bolstering of autocrats – can lead to greater hopes for diplomacy and peace.  


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